….or ‘traveller’s joy’ to use another of its many names, is a vigorous climber. As it grows and matures, it forms woody stems as thick as a wrist, and the plant may grow to a height of 40 feet or more. Like other members of the Clematis genus, it climbs using its leaf stalks (petioles). These entwine around any convenient support or structure in their vicinity and then lignify (become woody).
In the UK and many parts of Europe, it may be seen in a variety of habitats such the edges of woodlands, hedges, or within woods where a gap in the canopy has formed; though it does tend to like chalky soils. Clematis belongs to the same family as buttercups, the Ranunculaceae. Clematis sp. are the only woody members of the Ranunculaceae. The flower structure is also unusual in that the flowers of Clematis species actually have no petals! The showy, petal-like structures (for which garden species are most valued) are, in fact, sepals.
Old man’s beard produces many flowers (see featured image), which are a soft white colour. Each is about 2cm (¾ inch) across. W J Bean (Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles) says that the flowers have a slight almond scent. When the plant has finished flowering, the developing seeds (known as achenes) retain part of the flower called the style. This has long, silky hairs, which form the grey tufted balls that are so conspicuous in hedgerows in autumn and winter. These silky hairs assist in the dispersal of the seeds.These are indeed the ‘old man’s beard’ ( see adjacent image).
The French name for old man’s beard is ‘herbe aux gueux’ – the beggar’s or rascal’s herb. Beggars were said to use its acrid sap to irritate the skin to give it a sore and ulcerated look in order to induce sympathy in, and a donation from, passers by!
Whilst we consider old man’s beard to be ‘normal’ plant of the hedgerow, it is viewed with some alarm in places like New Zealand. It was introduced there as a garden plant, but its wind blown seeds soon found other homes – in their woods and forests. Here, it grows rampantly in the canopy reducing the light that filters down to the shrub and herb layers. Consequently, the growth of these plants is reduced; indeed, the sheer weight of the plant may break the supporting trees. As with invasive species here, it has to be controlled.