Ropevine Clematis

Clematis pauciflora

white flower with tiny spikes all over it
Male flowers | Rios trailhead | March 2008

When Mary left us here below
The Virgin’s Bower began to blow

(old German couplet)

Ropevine clematis, or virgin’s bower (Clematis pauciflora), a relative of the popular garden clematis, is a woody vine of the coastal sage scrub and chaparral. It uses any convenient shrub for support, growing through and over it to reach the sun. When in bloom, clematis transforms unremarkable host plants into masses of creamy blossoms. Each clematis seed bears a long, feathery plume. The mature, fluffy seed heads are as spectacular as the flowers and give rise to one of the common names: “old man’s beard”.


Other Common Names:

virgin's bower, few flowered clematis, clematis

Description 2,59

Our native clematis (ropevine clematis or virgin’s bower) is a perennial woody vine 6-12 feet (2-4 meters) in length that uses sturdy shrubs of the chaparral and sage scrub for support. Leaves are opposite, pinnately compound, composed of 3 to 5 leaflets. Leaflets are generally lobed and toothed. Vines cling to their support by means of the leaf petioles that coil around supporting branches.

Flowers are either male or female. According to the literature, both may be found on the same plant, but our plants (those that we have examined) tend to be unisexual. Male and female flowers are very similar in appearance. Flowers are white or cream-colored, occasionally buttery-yellow. They are 1/4 – 1/2 inches (0.5 to 1.5 cm) across and are born in clusters of one to three on stalks from the leaf axils. Petals are absent and sepals assume the appearance of petals. There are four (sometimes five or six) sepals, radially arranged. Older sepals curl under and soon drop. Most of the flower consists of a spray of up to 50 stamens or pistils. In a female flower, the column of pistils emerges from a ring of stamens which appear to be infertile (but we could not confirm this). Peak bloom time is January – June.1

Flowers are attractive, but the show starts when the seeds develop. Each seed is attached to a long, curved, feathery tail. Together they turn ripe seed clusters into soft, fluffy globes.

small yellow pollen pieces on flower

Female flower | Santa Carina trailhead | February 2015

many small white flowers with think curved petals

Mature seed heads | Santa Helena trailhead | June 2011

3 leaves at end of branches

Rios trailhead | February 2015


Ropevine clematis is native to southern California, Baja California and northwestern Mexico.89 It occurs primarily in chaparral below 4000 feet.7

In the Reserve, Ropevine clematis may be found in the chaparral on hills above the trails of both Central and East Basin and occasionally in the sage scrub along the main south-side trail.

Classification 2,59,11

Ropevine clematis is a dicot angiosperm in the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). This is an extremely variable group with a worldwide distribution. Flowers may show primitive characteristics. In the case of Clematis species, these include radial symmetry, a variable number of sepals, unfused flower parts, and numerous stamens and pistils.143 This family contains many important garden plants, such as larkspur, columbine, anemones, and many species and cultivars of the genus Clematis.

Three similar species of Clematis are native to southern California. Only one has been reported from the Reserve, but it is not unlikely that the others, especially chaparral clematis (C. lasiandra) are also here.

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
tiny white flower with small tubes on it

Male flower | Rios trailhead | March 2011

bush covered in white flowers in field

Vines blooming in the chaparral | Santa Helena trailhead | February 2015

flower with tiny curved white petals

Photo credit: Barbara Wallach | Developing seed heads | March 2005

Ecology 139,140

Plants in dense vegetation types, like chaparral, must either be shade-adapted or compete with their neighbors for sunlight. Many plants produce woody support structures – trunks and branches and twigs  – that lift their leaves into the light. These however require energy to produce and maintain tissues that contribute little to photosynthesis and reproduction. Vines “borrow” support from other plants. Without the need to produce their own structure, they can grow more rapidly.

Ropevine clematis is a woody vine: it has “hedged its bets” a bit, sacrificing some growth for enough woody tissue to support itself as a small bush should its major support fail. Mostly clematis is found leaning on and growing through larger shrubs. It attaches to its support by means of petioles (leaf stems) which twine around any slim solid object they encounter. Clematis is usually found with its supporting partner.

side view of branch and 3 leaves on it

Twining leaf stalk provides support | Santa Florencia overlook | February 2015

small white flowers with pollen collectors sticking out

Male flowers | Rios trailhead | February 2015

bush with many small white flowers

Rios trailhead | February 2015

Human Uses  

Although all parts of the plant are reported to be mildly toxic,7 the Kumeyaay devised a method to use the bark as a remedy for fever.100 The similar and more widely distributed chaparral clematis (C. lasiandra) was used topically by Chumash for skin eruptions and ringworm.15

Clematis is an important garden plant. The International Clematis Society142 describes one collection with more than 500 different varieties of clematis species.

small white flower with spiked pollen collectors

Female flower | Rios trailhead | February 2015

white flower on branch with small spiked pollen collectors

Male flower | Rios trailhead | February 2015

Yellow flowers surrounded by green leaves

Santa Carina trailhead | February 2015

Interesting Facts 141

As a group, the species of clematis have acquired many common names such as “rope vine”, “love vine”, “old man’s beard” “smoke wood” and “snow-in-harvest”. The Spanish called it Barba de Chiva, or “goat’s beard”.15 While some of these names are self-explanatory, the origin of the most universal name, “virgin’s bower” is debated. Some think that it was named after Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen”; others that it was named after the Virgin Mary. According to a German legend, clematis sheltered Mary and Jesus during their flight into Egypt.

The genus name, Clematis, comes from the Greek word meaning long, supple branches.21

small white spikes on flower

Male flower | Santa Florencia overlook | February 2012

spiked white flowers in bush

Rios trailhead | February 2015

flower with thin, curved white petals

Photo credit: Barbara Wallach | Developing seed heads | April 2010

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