September 24, feast of Our Lady of Ransom (Our Lady of Mercy)
One day a few years ago, I was chatting with a young lady of about twelve or thirteen and happened to mention that I loved hydrangeas. She agreed that they were one of her faves, and we struck up a conversation about flowers. As it happened, we had a lot in common, garden-wise. Besides hydrangeas, we both loved peonies, lilacs, irises and a few other classics.
I mused that these flowers were "old fashioned" favorites, varieties that had withstood the test of time. They showed up in our grandmothers' gardens because they were adaptable, easy care, beautiful in their natural state, and also made excellent cut flowers. To our ancestors, they provided maximum beauty and elegance with minimum effort. They would ornament the outside of your house and property, greet you with perfume on warm spring evenings, and could be cut and thrown into a vase on a moment's notice if you had visitors for tea. Many of them also provided landscape variety when not in bloom because they grew on shrubs or small trees.
Another of my antique favorites is clematis. It doesn't mind some shade, grows happily in indifferent soil, and usually rewards with an abundance of glorious flowers. An added bonus is that it is a climber and will cheerfully cover the ugliest of structures.
"Virgin's Bower" is actually a nickname for wild clematis, also known as "traveler's joy," and "old man's beard," because of the fluffy seed pods that follow the flowers.
In former times, many plants became known by the liturgical feast days around which they bloomed or were harvested. Virgin's Bower blooms around mid-August—right around the feast of the Assumption, which occurs on August 15. If you look at its growing habit, you can see another connection: though the four-petaled white flowers are tiny and slender—resembling tiny crosses—in profusion they look puffy and white. One is reminded of Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary ascending into heaven on billowing clouds.
Here is an old English couplet associating the feast day with the ripening of the seed pods:
When Mary left us here below
The Virgin's Bower began to blow
It is called traveler's joy because it loves to climb around fences and roadside brush; you will most likely spot it along a roadway because it likes the late summer sunlight afforded by an open area.
In fact, the specimen above was found growing wild along our street, though this particular variety is a Japanese import and is usually sold through nurseries. It is called "sweet autumn clematis," and it smells vaguely like honeysuckle. Also called Clematis paniculata or Clematis terniflora, it is extremely invasive and considered a pest in some states. There is a less invasive native variety, Clematis virginiana, which can be identified by its toothed leaves.
According to Jim Fisk, author of "Clematis, Queen of Climbers" (a gem of a book from which the above rhyme was borrowed), the English variety is also scented.
Text and photo © Copyright 2008 High Tor Media, Inc.