Clematis vitalba also known as Old Man’s Beard or Traveller’s Joy.
Other less common names relate to it’s use as a tobacco substitute, for example, Smoke Wood or Boy’s Bacca. The woody stems contain large vessels which allow air to pass through them and it was once the habit to break off pieces of the stem and smoke it like a cigar.
Clematis vitalba is a member of the Buttercup family and the only member of that family to have woody stems.
Native to the UK and most common in the south , it is a climbing vine or Liana. It’s roots are in the soil and it climbs toward the light by curling the stems of it’s leaflets around trees and shrubs.
Old Man’s Beard is a familiar sight in the winter scrambling through and topping the hedgerows.
The leaves are made up of three to five leaflets on a central stem and these leaflets are spaced apart with two opposite pairs and one at the end. It is usually five, three leaflets are only common on young plants.
The ability of these leaflets to curl around anything they find in their way is central to the success of the plant. An unsupported vine can only grow toward the light for about one metre before it drops and grows along the ground.
The host plant in these next pictures is Hawthorn. I just mention this in case anyone thinks that Wild Clematis has berries of any kind. Of course it doesn’t, the seeds that we are looking at are its fruit.
The seeds provide a valuable source of food for birds throughout the winter.
This vine is very important to our wildlife. Apart from the seeds provided for the birds the flowers are a rich source of nectar for visiting insects and the leaves provide the larval food for several native moths. In fact there are several species that are completely dependant on Clematis vitalba as their sole larval food plant, these include the Small Emerald Moth, The Small Waved Umber and Haworth’s Pug.
Native to the UK and much of Southern and Western Europe these vines play a vital role in our ecology. They fit well into our crowded hedgerows and they do not outgrow themselves. Elsewhere in the world they are much less welcome.
It is particularly unwelcome in New Zealand where it is considered an “unwanted organism” and a “national pest.” A milder climate and a lack of natural control agents means that Wild Clematis grows much more vigorously over there. The flowers only open in full sun and the habit of the vine is to grow to the top of the tree before flowering. The leaves smother whatever it is growing through and deprive the host plants of sunlight.
Even here it can cause problems. The vines can grow as thick as your wrist and more.
However they do also provide the only real opportunity in the UK to play Tarzan and swing through the jungle and for that they should be valued. (you can swing on them but just like Tarzan, you may hurt your bum if they break)
I have heard it said that the stems make a good natural tinder for starting a fire but in my experience I think that it absorbs moisture very easily and in winter it is always wet and useless. It needs to be dry, perhaps in summer. (The feathery seeds dry quickly and are like cotton wool for taking a spark but they don’t last long)
Species: Clematis vitalba