Prairie Tayles: A Good Thing Turned Monster

Sep 22, 2017

Wallace Stegner suggests specific landscapes speak to a person’s heart, and he’s right. Many have a favorite place that roots the spirit. Plants have a similar effect, and that preference is genetic at my house. Mom and I love clematis blossoms. We can’t grow too many or take enough photos of those blooming in our flowerbeds.

We’ve found we can cultivate them in western Kansas if we tenderly nurture them. That says volumes because this plant succumbs easily to heat and drought, natural elements of Kansas summers.

Four Easters ago, I gave my mom two clematis, one purple and one white. She tucked them in soil east of her front door and watched them twine up metal porch poles. That first summer, blossoms were sparse and plants stunted. The next season, they decided to showoff and bloomed prolifically as they advanced toward her guttering. Despite the resulting fuzzy seeds, sometimes called old man’s beard, her plants didn’t spread. In fact, the opposite occurred.

The third year, only the white vine re-sprouted. Her purple variety didn’t survive. Despite our disappointment at losing the deeper-hued plant, its companion compensated. At one point, Mom had 50 saucer-sized, white blooms climbing toward heaven. To support the extra weight, she added a chicken wire frame.

After watching her success, I planted clematis near my back porch. This year it flowered for the first time so I can expect hordes of blossoms next spring. Like mom’s plant, the seeds haven’t spread. Until I visited Wyoming during the summer, I thought this was unfortunate. After seeing what happens with unchecked clematis growth, I’m delighted our plants haven’t reproduced.

When I view the acres of green vines climbing logs, trees, bushes, fences, and bridge foundations, I see how it got its folk name--virgin’s bower. I might not understand the virgin part, but left to its own devices, this plant forms shady tunnels big enough provide napping space for several classrooms full of students. Less lethargic children could play hide-n-seek for days in these green grottoes and not find all their playmates.

In one familiar yard, previous owners turned this wild vine with delicate yellow blossoms loose along their fence. Once they realized its capacity to overtake everything in its path, they wrenched woody stems loose from metal frames and considered that a closed episode. Imagine their surprise to discover hairy seedpods had blown about their lawn and took root the next spring. Instead of an orderly row of trailing creepers clinging tightly to chain link, baby vines sprouted and spread across two lots.

Once I saw this favorite plant growing unchecked, I was glad the cultured clematis growing in mom’s flowerbed and mine hadn’t reproduced. Despite having lovely flowers that succor bees, this plant growing out of control is a monster that becomes too much of a good thing.