The wild roses aren’t blooming yet in south-central Alberta; with the unpredictable and unusually cold spring we’ve had, our provincial flower is a little late in blossoming. But, while on a camping trip last week in the bush north of Calgary, we found wild clematis in full bloom: Clematis occidentalis, to be exact, which is apparently a more common plant in Alberta than I first thought. I certainly have never seen it before, despite the fact that its range is province-wide, and can be found everywhere from Kananaskis Country to the Weaselhead in Calgary, to Red Deer and as far north as Spirit River. So, as I’m wont to do, I did a little digging (of facts, not the plant!).
Clematis occidentalis (also known as Clematis verticellaris or Clematis columbiana, with the rather quaint and seriously outdated common name of Western Blue Virgin’s Bower) is native to Alberta and the western Prairie provinces. Although common here in Alberta, Clematis occidentalis is actually listed as either endangered or as a species of special concern across the border, in states such as Illinois, Maine, Maryland and Ohio. Clematis occidentalis and all of its kin – both wild and cultivated – belong to the family Ranunculacea, the buttercup family, although the family resemblance is rather difficult to detect. Like the cultivated members of its genus, Clematis occidentalis is a strong-stemmed vine that grows as a ground cover in wooded areas, reaching a length of up to 2 metres – and if given the opportunity to climb on other plants or some sort of structure, it will do so. Delicate crepe-paper blue blooms appear in June and July – but the flowers do not have petals, instead sporting four defined sepals. Apparently in days gone by, several different Indigenous nations used the plant in various ways: some created a poultice from the leaves of Clematis occidentalis that was used to treat sweaty feet. A rich tea was also made out of the leaves and stems that apparently “rinsed” the grey out of hair. (Chew on that, Clairol!). Others concocted a foot soak to combat swollen feet and ankles, and there was also a paste used to treat eczema and poorly-healing scabbed wounds.
Clematis occidentalis isn’t the only wild clematis in Alberta: the Western White Clematis (also found in Montana) or Clematis lingusticifolia is another lesser known species. Fuzzy seed heads have lent it the common moniker Old Man’s Beard, but it is also interestingly known as pepper vine. Apparently pioneers in the western States, craving pepper, added Clematis lingusticifolia to their diets, as the essential oils in the leaves give off a sharp sensation in the mouth that mimics the feel and taste of proper pepper (Capsicum). Unfortunately, this pepper substitute is highly toxic (as are all clematis’) and can actually cause internal bleeding in the stomach. While the intestinal tracts of early North American settlers may have suffered from doses of the pepper vine, certain Indigenous peoples employed it in small amounts to treat migraines and other nervous disorders.