The Purple Virgin’s Bower, Clematis viticella




Before launching myself completely into the debut of Longbourn to London, I cannot leave The Red Chrysanthemum behind without including one more flower used by both Darcy and Elizabeth in their nosegays to each other. Identified as merely “clematis” in the story, the specific plant they would have found festooning the fences of Pemberley would almost certainly have been Clematis viticella (pronounced “vie-te-sel-la”; Latin, not Italian), the purple virgin’s bower.

This species, native around the Mediterranean Ocean and well into upper elevation habitats in the Middle East, was brought into common cultivation in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, so naturally its common name pays homage to her. Given my love of Elizabethan history and my affection for this genus, I wanted to include it in the tale. When my research revealed its meaning is mental beauty, cleverness, or wit (depending on your source), it was all a perfect fit for Elizabeth and Darcy.

The only clematis native to England is Clematis vitalba, called variously traveller’s joy, old man’s beard (for the shaggy silvery seed heads), and the virgin’s bower (again for QEI). It has its own meaning, filial love. This is hardly appropriate for Darcy and Elizabeth. The other clematis commonly listed in herbals is the evergreen clematis, which in the early 1800s would not have been some relation of Clematis armandii, but rather the winter-blooming Clematis cirrhosa, from northern Africa and the Middle East, which is, in fact, evergreen when grown in mild or sheltered situations in the British isles. It means poverty! Hardly an appropriate flower to give a man with 10,000 a year (and very likely more!).

The Regency era saw many wonderful plants arriving from plant explorers active all over the world, plants seen first in the gardens of the wealthy and interested. Surely during the time of Darcy’s mother Lady Anne Darcy, interesting plants would have been cosseted by her as a lady of fashion who was devoted to her husband and estate. The large-flowered hybrids we grow today were nearly fifty years off in their first development. At Pemberley, Clematis vitalba would have been left to the wild places, and Clematis cirrhosa would have been too tender for anything but conservatory cultivation. That leaves the hardy and lovely nodding pagoda roofs of the purple virgin’s bower to blossom through the summer, adding a touch of impertinence and activity to the formal gardens. If ever a plant embodied Miss Elizabeth Bennet, it is this particular clematis.

The flowers branch in trios from the main canes on 8-10 inch flower stems, a perfect length for inclusion in a nosegay. The illustration here, from ~1800, shows the flowers to be a more violet hue than the typical purple, but the profile image is spot on. Clematis viticella has continued to be popular in gardens, and it is still widely used in breeding durable, floriferous, and relatively easy-care hybrids. Just as Elizabeth and Darcy remain vibrant in our modern age, so too does Clematis viticella, the flower of wit. Let’s believe Jane Austen would be well pleased.