Look closely at hedges and bushes in forgotten corners at this time of year and you may see the fluffy seed heads of Old Man’s Beard. It’s sometimes called Traveller’s Joy and is a wild Clematis, a native related to the showy pink and purple garden flowers. Clematis are members of the Buttercup family but you wouldn’t guess that from how big they grow. They’re massive woody buttercups, whose climbing stems can grow as thick as your wrist. Clematis vitalba is its scientific name. It’s delicate and feathery and fabulous when silhouetted against a winter sky.
It scrambles rather than climbs over fences, gates and hedges, using flexible leaf stalks which entwine themselves around anything they touch that stays still for long enough. When they have grasped onto something, the leaf stalks become woody and hold the plant securely in place.
Old Man’s Beard is a plant which flowers in August and September. In winter it develops these distinctive silky pom-poms. Their feather-like plumes make soft movements in the wind and are essential for dispersal of its seeds. Each plume is attached to a single-seeded fruit called an achene. As with many native plants it is the essential food source for a variety of beautiful moths including the Small Emerald and the Small Waved Umber.
I hope the Old Man’s Beard will bring joy to you.
[Article originally published in Ogwell Parish Newsletter]