Up and down the hedgerow with old man's beard
November 15, 2021
At this time of year, I’m often out and about foraging for seed heads, conifer cones, dried heads of grasses, teasels and other wild plants plus anything else from the forest, field or hedgerow that looks good at this time of year.
It all goes to my florist friend Tracey Mathieson, who runs Foxtail Lilly, a lovely little barn shop here in Northamptonshire. Last week I was harvesting clematis seed heads from local hedgerows and, looking at them more closely than usual, interesting details are revealed.
Clematis vitalba, old man’s beard, spreads by its wind blown seeds and the different seedling plants scrambling through the local hedges vary in a number of ways. The seedheads of some have longer plumes than others, they vary in the number of seeds in each cluster, some are more grey while others are more silvery. The seed at the base of each plume varies in the depth of its colour and, in a few, the seedheads fall apart much earlier than others which ruins their decorative effect – indoors and out.
The most vigorous of all the three hundred clematis species from around the world, The Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and The Marine reports that the stems grow several metres each year, which is there for us all to see, but also that just one plant can cover an area of 180 square metres.
Seed head production seems to vary from year to year, presumably depending on conditions at flowering time in July and August. But seventeen thousand seeds can be produced in one year from just half a square metre of growth, they report which, I have to say, seems extraordinary – more like a typo than a fact.
A joint Irish/Czech study revealed that hoverflies were the pollinators making the most visits to flowers, with almost half of all pollinator visits; other flies are in second place with bees making up less than 10% of pollinating visits.
It also turns out that this species is eaten by the larvae of a wide range of moths, including many species that are reliant on it as their only foodplant; including the small waved umber, the small emerald, and the delightfully named Haworth's pug. Finches feed on the seeds.
At this time of year, though, the farmer’s flail mower is the enemy of finches and foragers alike. Having, over the years, noted the most productive plants in the local hedgerows, often where there’s a break in the hedge for a gateway, it’s disappointing to fetch up armed with secateurs and find the flail has got there first.
Clematis vitalba comes with two common names that will be familiar to most of us. John Gerard, he of the famous Herball, is responsible for one of them: “esteemed for pleasure by reason of the goodly shadow and the pleasant scent or savour of its flowers,” he reports, “and because of its decking and adorning ways and hedges where people travel, have I named it traveller’s joy." So this common name, that has long entered the vernacular, was invented by Gerard.”
Fifty years earlier, in 1548, William Turner had coined the name “Downi-vine”, which didn’t catch on, also recognising the feathery plumes – which are in fact, the styles of the original flower.
Gerard also notes that it “maketh in winter a goodly show, covering the hedges white all over with his feather-like tops,” and the “feather-like tops” give it another common name: old man’s beard.
We can always trust Wikipedia to come up with a few nuggets of interesting info on subjects such as this: “The French name for old man's beard is 'herbe aux gueux' – the beggar's or rascal's herb. This is a reference to its use by beggars; they used its acrid sap to irritate the skin to give it a sore and ulcerated look - in order to induce sympathy in, and perhaps a donation from, passers by!”
I also read somewhere that it was called traveller’s joy because people on walking journeys used to stuff their shoes with the seed heads to prevent blisters – but now I can’t find the reference. Sorry. And, frankly, the Gerard story seems far more plausible.
Wikipedia also reveals that: “Clematis vitalba was used to make rope during the Stone Age in Switzerland. In Slovenia, the stems of the plant were used for weaving baskets for onions and also for binding crops. It was particularly useful for binding sheaves of grain because mice do not gnaw on it. In Italy, the sprouts are harvested to make omelettes (called "vitalbini" in Tuscany, "visoni" in Veneto).”
You learn all sorts of interesting things on this blog: clematis omelettes, who’d have thought it. And poetry too. Edward Thomas, in his poem The Sign-Post, from 1917, reported that:
“The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.”
And, while I hesitate to disagree with the great man, “hazel tuft”?! I suppose that’s what we might call “poetic license”.
Geoffrey Grigson, of course, has thoughts on the name: old man’s beard. “But observe that the Old Man, as so frequently in English plant names,” he says, “may also be the Devil. This is a devil’s twister, devil’s guts, which can twist and choke trees to death, and turn a south country copse into an Amazonian forest.”
So hesitate before planting it in your garden – after all, there’s plenty in English hedgerows . Although, sadly, much less in Scotland.