Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 9, 2009

A Bearded Bower

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:54 pm

I called up my younger son, the Latin scholar, today and asked him a question. I was thinking about a nice winter seed plant called the Virgin’s Bower (see above) and came up with a semantic query regarding the name. The plant’s scientific name is Clematis virginiana which basically means “the climbing plant of Virginia” in dead tongue. I didn’t need him to come up with this one, since the old man has an extremely basic knowledge of Latin and can usually figure such things out – if he can’t, he simply makes it up.  My question was about the ending of the species name. It was such a small matter that I didn’t think it was worth making up anything about it.

Many early discoveries of the New World were classified as coming from Virginia, so they are labeled as such. A lot of living things, therefore, have Virginia in their Latin name. The White-tailed Deer, Great-horned owl,  Choke Cherry, Opossum, and the Virgin’s Bower all share this trait. The part that befuddled me was why their scientific names are officially listed as either “virginiana” or “virginianus” and  both forms mean “from Virginia.”  Take the Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus, and the Oppossum, Didelphuis  virginiana for example.  These two animals are both “from Virginia” but they are designated with two different endings – “a” and “us.”  I asked my college scholar to give it to me simple. “These are probably masculine and feminine endings,” he answered. “The masculine form requires an ‘us’ ending and the feminine ends in an ‘a’.”  He actually said this in a much more technical manner, but that was the gist of it.

This left me with another deeper question, however. What is it that makes one animal masculine and another not?  Why is it that the ‘possum and the black cherry tree are considered in female terms while the horned owl and deer are burdened with masculinity? There certainly are manly ‘possums and effeminate deer out there. If there weren’t, there would be no little deer and possums, if you know what I mean. Think about it. Yes, I realize that in the scheme of things this is not an important question but it’s worthy of a few brain cells. Having just expended those few cells, I will now move on.

There is little doubt why the Virgin’s Bower name is feminized. The name, bower, can equally refer to a “woman’s private chamber” or a “leafy arbor”- in other words girly things.  It is probably no coincidence that it bears the name of the state of Virginia, which was originally named for the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth the 1st of England. I’m guessing that the frilly nature of the seed head somehow reminded folks of a queenly sort of boudoir decor. A greasy snarling opossum has no royal resemblance, I might add, so my interpretation can only go so far.

The less romantically inclined are compelled to descriptively call the Virgin’s Bower by the name of  “Old Man’s Beard.” This is a good description. Bowers produce wonderful puffy seed heads that stand out against the stark winter landscape. When framed in a bright morning light (see below), they invite you to closely examine their virgin beauty  in greater detail ( see here). Now, technically they are not truly virgin because they bear seeds, but we’ll let that one pass!  For some reason beyond my comprehension, some have chosen to call this plant the “Devils Darning Needle”. This decidedly negative and masculine designation is not a good name.

The summer appearance of the vine is somewhat non-descript. It bears serrated three-part leaves and white flowers along a winding 20 foot woody vine, but the whole thing blends into the greenery. Winter is the time when the Virgin’s Bower can show off it’s feminine charms. It is, as you can see, a bearded lady deserving of an “a.”

3 Comments »

  1. The clematis genus as a whole has pretty cool seed heads, but Clematis virginiana certainly takes the cake. (Mmmm, cake…)

    Comment by Monica — February 15, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

  2. thank you so much for this post. I found it by accident (really?) in some research on the internet. I have become enamoured of the virgin bower, Clematis virginiana (here in Texas we label it the clematis drummondii) in the last year . . taking photos of it in it’s various stages of blossom . . . from Big Bend in West Texas – to most recently in the Texas Hill Country. I have been searching for some kind of “story” about it’s name . . . and you have delivered me lovely one. Except Mr. Thomas Drummond changed the name . . . making the tale fork off onto another road. I wish I could attach one of my photos of our Texas “bowers” for you. Thanks you.

    Comment by Keith Godwin — September 4, 2013 @ 9:09 pm

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