I loved looking at virgin's bower, it is also known as old man's beard because of the long, feathery beard-like tail on its fruit. It is a fun plant; it vines, it trails, and at different times it takes on a whole new look. It used to grow wild up the guide wires that held electrical poles in place back in the mountains of southeast Kentucky. It can climb as high as 15 feet on top of other plants, creating a shaded shelter, or bower. I always wanted to play under it, all hidden away from the rest of the world. That never became possible because I was warned early on that it could cause blisters on my skin. I should have had a fear of it, just as I did poison ivy, but there comes a time in every girl's life, when she just doesn't think straight.
Of course when one is eight or nine years old, we are invulnerable, and plants surely won't bother us. Or so I thought at the time, and learned differently the hard way. I was walking home from school with my cousin Tish. We were playing a game of hide and seek with Billy and another boy who were paying us little mind as they strolled along behind us. We thought we were smart, running to get ahead of them then jumping out to scare them just as they got close to us. The boys ignored us as boys will do, and simply told us that they knew we were there all along.
There was a bend in the road, and we took it in a run, way ahead of Billy and his buddy. We came to one of the electric poles and the entire bottom was covered along the guide wires by a vine that grew in abundance. Now Tish had on long pants of some sort, and she also had on long sleeves, but I didn't. "Let's hide there," I said, and I reached into the vines, tearing them as I went, to keep from becoming ensnared, till I got safely inside and under the vining growth. Tish was right behind me. The boys sauntered on by, as if they did not know we were there. I quickly jumped face first into the vines that had suddenly become impenetrable, and just as quickly realized that I was not in the spot where we had entered. I proceeded to tear the vines apart again, getting the juices all over me while I tried to get untangled. Tish was, as usual, right behind me. Hindsight tells me that was one time I should not have tried to be first.
Clematis virginiana grows on streambanks, in thickets, woods and roadsides. It grows from Quebec to Manitoba, south to Alabama and Louisiana, and west to Kansas. It is a perennial herbaceous plant that climbs over other plants to reach its height of about 15 feet. The leaves are divided into three toothed oval leaflets, each on a long stalk, the stalks act as tendrils. Numerous creamy white flowers bloom in large clusters from July through September and are followed by fruit heads with long plumy tails.
According to my relatives who used an infusion of it occasionally for skin problems, Indians also made a decoction of the plant, which they applied to cuts and sores on the skin. The European botanist Constantine Rafinesque, who studied American plants and wrote "Medical Flora" in 1830, made the following comment on virgin's bower: "Bark and blossoms acrid, raising blisters on the skin; a corrosive poison internally, loses the virulence by cooking." I could easily tell him how very right he was. He also wrote that an oily liniment made from the plant would cure the itch and that the plant, in minute doses, was good for chronic rheumatism, palsy, and ulcers. Modern herbal studies cite virgin's bower as an external remedy for skin diseases, but report that experience and scientific studies have confirmed the observations on the plant's toxicity.
By late evening of the day of my escapade with Tish, my arms and face were itching like there was no tomorrow, and by night they were covered in blisters. The next morning one eye was swollen shut. I was a total mess, and there was no way I could hide it. My Aunt Bett was called upon, and after an application or two of one of her concocted linaments did not help it at all, I was taken to the doctor. My mother had asked if I had been in poison ivy and I strongly denied it, but I was afraid to tell her about the virgin's bower, because then I would have had to admit I was flirting with boys. When Dr. Carl pulled out a needle that was every bit as big as I was, I finally confessed that I had been hiding under the vine that crept up the telephone pole. His answer was that it didn't matter what kind of vine it was, my blisters were worthy of the biggest dose of whatever he had in that needle.
I survived that episode, no thanks to Tish, who got not one blister on her since she was always coming up behind me, and certainly no thanks to Billy who laughed everytime he saw me with my swollen face, but I barely survived my mother's wrath. She told me it was one thing to accidentally fall into poisonous vines, but it was certainly another thing to deliberately run head first into them. I told her it was all Billy's fault.
I don't think she ever did believe me.
 Magic and Medicine of Plants, The Reader's Digest, 1986.
Photographs are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: Equilibrium and Kennedyh.