Mending With the Devil’s Darning Needles: The Pain Relieving Properties of Clematis
Common Name: Virgin’s Bower, Traveler’s Joy, Love Vine, Lady’s Bower, Sugar Bowls, Devil’s Darning Needles, Pepper Vine, Leather Flower, Vasevine
Botanical Name: C. neomexican, C. chinensis, C. virginiana and other related species.
Botanical Family: Ranunculaceae
Botanical Description: Generally semi-woody climbing vines with opposite leaves, trifoliate. Dioecious flowers with four sepals, no petals and numerous stamen. Achene fruits that look like long, narrow feathers.
Flavor: Spicy/pungent, salty
Energetics: Hot, dry
Actions: Vascular tonic (vasodilator), relaxant nervine, anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory
Specific indications: Arthritis worsened by cold, damp conditions or weather. Migraines from vascular atony. Anxiety, fear and weepiness with concurrent feelings of ungroundedness and a sense of disconnection from reality. Uterine and overian cramping pain with a sense of coldness.
The sprawling, tangly lianas of Wild Clematis climbing Juniper, Oak and even Alder trees are a familiar and sweet sight here in the Gila. Their vibrant light green foliage wraps itself around tree and stone. I’m always amazed by how its long, winding roots can manage to grow a tight grip into even narrow rock crevices and hard, dry soil. With ivory to bright white flowers, they stand out against the blue-green shade of the Oak woodlands, and their feather-tailed seeds are a distinctive mark of this prolific and abundant vine of the mountain Southwest and beyond. Sometimes given innocent and romantic sounding names such as Virgin’s Bower or The Lady’s Vine, Clematis has also been known as Devil’s Darning Needles. While I surely don’t care for the value judgement imposed upon the plant by such a title, I do agree that this powerful herb can do an excellent job of mending the pain and discomfort of a wide variety of ailments.
Clematis was at one time a very large genus, containing about 300 species. It has recently been broken down into several smaller subgenera, but Clematis itself is retained and the species most typical of it botanically are still included under that name. I have listed some of the species above I know to be medicinally active, but to my understanding and experience, any species that demonstrates a significantly acrid (as in, it burns the shit out of your mouth) taste will work just fine. I have no idea if this extends to any of the hybridized or domesticated cultivars as I’ve worked exclusively with wild Clematis at this point.
Strongly active Clematis will be acrid and burn your mouth quite noticeably. Young leaves are by far the best and I try to harvest it when the leaves are not quite grown and at least a month before flowering. Not to say it won’t work later, but it will be stronger and have more relaxant (both nervine and anti-spasmodic) effects if it is harvested while still very acrid.
In Western herbal practice, the arial parts of leaf and stem are most often used, while in Chinese medicine the root bark is often utilized as well. If you’ve ever tasted the spicy bite of Clematis leaves, you still haven’t tasted anything until you’ve taken a nibble of the root bark. This innocuous looking root is acrid enough to make your eyes water and burn when you chop the root bark and certainly more than strong enough to make most of us spit the offending piece of burning matter right back out of our mouths. This is fairly typical of many members of the Ranunculaceae, most of whom certainly tends toward the acrid taste in general. This is exactly why so many of them make excellent anti-spasmodics, a quality directly associated with the acrid taste by many systems of traditional medicine.
Clematis has some overlap in actions and effect with the famed Pulsatilla (now Anemone). This is not surprising considering they share some important constituents. I first learned from Southwestern herbalist Mimi Kamp that Clematis can act as a nervine in ways similar to Anemone. It’s certainly not exactly the same medicine, but close enough to be very useful.
As with its cousin Anemone, this herb is most indicated for those who experiencing cold signs, with or without symptoms of dampness as well. These individuals will likely have a pale tongue, a middling to slow pulse, pale skin, an overall sense of tiredness and an aversion to cold weather. These people are often easily upset or disoriented, and may be referred to as “spacey”. They often have difficulty remaining ungrounded, especially when feeling strongly emotional.
Also similar to Anemone, Clematis has a marked affinity for the reproductive system. I especially like it wherever there is a tendency to spasmodic uterine or ovarian pain of a cold nature, typified by dull but insistent aching and often accompanied by sadness, despondency and joint pain. From King’s American Dispensatory:
“Clematis virginiana has been highly spoken of as a nervine in uterine diseases.… Clematis recta, being particularly useful in nervous insomnia, neuralgic and rheumatic headache, toothache, reflex neuroses of women from ovarian or urinary irritation, neuroses of men with pain in testicles and bladder, cystitis, urethritis, gonorrhoea, orchitis, and swellings of the inguinal glands.”
Clematis has a history in traditional medicine in the treatment of cold, sometimes damp, arthritis, muscle spasms (including leg cramps) and similar afflictions. I find it most effective when formulated with other appropriate herbs which may include Black Cohosh, Ginger or Turmeric. I have even found it to have some significant use in the treatment of joint pain in fibromyalgia, especially when combined with Ashwagandha.
This plant is almost always recommended for migraines by herbalists in the US. Clematis is indeed an excellent and effective vasodilator that can be extremely helpful for those experiencing migraines, especially when other typical treatments have failed to have an effect. I learned from Michael Moore that Clematis is:
“…a useful treatment for headaches in general and migraine and cluster headaches specifically… Most effective in classic migraines where there are head flushes or visual disturbances in advance of the actual headache and most effective then, when drunk at the first sign of these presymptoms. Some folks find the tea works better, some find the tincture more effective. Try both.”
I have mostly worked with the fresh plant tincture, but the tea is indeed effective as well and I usually keep a bit on hand to try for folks not responding to the alcoholic extract. While I find a fresh plant tincture made with significantly acrid leaves and root bark and high proof alcohol to be the strongest and most active preparation, I’ve also seen a 5 year old tincture made with brandy and wilted flowers and leaves that had little acrid taste be effective in the treatment of migraines and arthritis when used in somewhat larger than usual doses.
Considerations & Contra-indications: Not generally an appropriate herb for those with heat signs. Caution should be used when using over a long period of time, especially as a simple and not for people with dominant deficiency in anything more than acute situations. I tend to think it’s best as a short term approach or buffered by an well thought out formula. Nevertheless, I find reports of the plant’s toxicity to be somewhat overstated, as long as it is used appropriately and with due respect for its strength. Strongly acrid species can be moderated by always using the dried plant and by briefly frying it in a hot pan, especially the root bark.
Dosage: 5-60 drops of fresh plant tincture, depending on the intensity of the plant and the constitution of the individual. Otherwise, a tsp of dried plant in 1 cup of just boiled water.
References & Resources
King’s American Dispensatory
Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West by Michael Moore
Recorded Lecture by Mimi Kamp
Recorded Lectures & Written Notes by David Winston
All Photos © 2010 Jesse Wolf Hardin