The roadsides appear bare as I walk on this late autumn day. Temperatures are cool and along with the lessened amount of daylight, the season is advancing toward winter.
In front of me, off to the edge of the road, I see an active flock of redpolls. These small birds from the far north have just recently arrived in the region and they will come to feeders later. Now they go to other sources for food, often seeds of alders and birches. But this flock is feeding on the seeds of a patch of tansies growing on the roadsides.
Tansy is very common at these sites and though not always appreciated, it does provide numerous seeds that can be chosen for bird food, as seen with the redpolls on this day. A few other plants here may also provide food for birds, but some are avoided.
Many roadside wildflowers hold seeds, formed a couple months ago, attached to fluffy growths. Such growths make the plants very easy to see now and very easy for breezes to pick up and transplant Using wind-dispersal, they do not need to rely on providing a meal for birds to transfer their seeds. Instead, the breezes of autumn and winter will carry off their hope of the next generation.
The fluffy growths that make this travel possible grow from the flowers of last summer and fall and now these seed-holdings abound in open sites. Most common are goldenrods and asters that filled these locations last summer with flowers of yellow, white and purple. Earlier ones — fireweed and milkweed — that added their flowers to the roadside botany in mid-summer, have mostly emptied their pods of wind-blown seeds by this time.
And there is the clematis.
During the days of late July and August, this vining plant showed its numerous white flowers to this scene. Like many vines, it grew in the open sunlight along the edge of woods, and hung onto branches of nearby trees as it reached far above the other roadside plants. White clematis (also called "virgin’s bower" and "old-man’s beard") is a regular, though usually not common, plant along these edge sites.
The woody vine is perennial and I have learned that where I find them one season, I’ll see them again in the next. Flowers are in clusters; each one is about 1 inch across. They appear to have four white petals that are actually sepals — not petals. (This happens with some other members of the buttercup family as well.)
Plants are dioecious and either male or female. Both flower in summer among their green leaves that are in groups of three. In autumn, it is the female plants that stand out as they hang onto the substrate. Once pollinated, the female flowers produce seeds that grow long plumes on them. Each flower has many of these fluffy plumes that appear as huge furry growths on the vines in fall (why called old man’s beard). And like the one that I found, they may be more than 10 feet above the ground — hard to not see.
White clematis (Clematis virginiana) is one of two wild clematis in the Northland. The other, a purple spring flower (Clematis verticillaris), is a vine, but not as large. The beautiful growth of flowers on a long vine in summer, white clematis continues to be noticed in autumn with fluffy seeds that are also very showy.