Western clematis: A perennial vine decorating the Kootenai River

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  • Photo by Don Bartling The White Clematis is a vine that looks like a flowered white goats’ beard.

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    Photo by Don Bartling The White Clematis abounds between Bonners Ferry and the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge along the Kootenai River.

  • Photo by Don Bartling The White Clematis is a vine that looks like a flowered white goats’ beard.

  • 1

    Photo by Don Bartling The White Clematis abounds between Bonners Ferry and the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge along the Kootenai River.

The banks of the Kootenai River and streams bulge with lush vegetation. These riparian plants prevent erosion and filter stormwater runoff, helping to keep waterways clear and healthy.

Trees, bushes and vines that live along river banks have extensive root systems that help hold the soil in place and anchor them to the bank during floods. Wildlife congregates along river banks, not only to drink, but also to browse on the lush vegetation.

During my travels along the Kootenai River, Cow Creek and many other creeks in Boundary County this past week I was compelled to take pictures of plants that aroused my curiosity. One was a wood vine tangled into tree-tops or sometimes growing along the ground, clambering through bushes. My curiosity got the best of me and I cut samples of the white whiskery vine that grew along the Kootenai River and took it to an expert for identification.

Dave Wenk, Boundary County weed superintendent, was kind enough to enlighten me on the name of the plant. Dave’s research revealed the White Clematis.

The Western Clematis (Ligusticifolia) is generally described as a perennial vine. This plant is native to Boundary County and the Northwest and has its most active growth period in the spring and summer. The Western Clematis has green foliage and inconspicuous white flowers, with a smattering of white fruits or seeds.

The white petals are not petals at all, but are sepals. The blossom is crowded with stamens and pistils. The greatest bloom is usually observed in the mid-summer, with fruit and seed production starting the beginning of the summer and continuing until fall. They are followed by the silky seed heads with long feather tails attached from fluffy spheres and are likened to goats’ beard. Leaves are not retained year to year.

The Western Clematis has a long life span relative to most other plant species and a moderate growth rate. The clematis is a vine that aggressively runs along the top of low plants or climbs taller plants and fences. The vine of this plant can be more than 50 feet long. It often grows along creek bottoms, forest edges, riparian thickets, and in Ponderosa Pine forests and on river banks at low to mid-elevation.

The seed floss has been used by natives and early settlers of the area as tinder for starting fires, insulation in shoes, and as an absorbent in baby diapers; the stems to make carrying nets and bow strings; the roots to make a shampoo. An infusion or poultice of this plant was applied to sores, wounds, bruises, swellings, painful joints, and was also used to treat chest pain and backaches and to treat horses and other animals. Crushed roots were reportedly placed in the nostrils of tired horses to revive them. Stems and leaves, which have a peppery taste, were chewed for colds or sore throats.

Western Clematis is useful to wildlife because it attracts various birds, including hummingbirds and butterflies. Small birds and rodents use the canopy for cover. Birds like to nest in the thick, tangled vines and the fluffy seeds heads seem a perfect material for lining nests. Also flowers are pollinated by bees and other insects.

Next time you drive or walk by the Kootenai River or a creek in low to mid-elevations, notice if Western Clematis is on the riverbank.

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