Old Man’s Beard

Old Man’s Beard looking like Father Christmas’s silky white beard © Karen Andrews

As a child, I knew the climber Clematis vitalba as Old Man’s Beard. I remember how its wispy white seedheads sprawled over winter hedgerows to great heights on our regular car journey from North Somerset to Bristol. Others know it as Traveller’s Joy. It seems more patchy these days, as hedges are kept trimmed at lower heights. Nonetheless, it is one of the plants that I associate with the run-up to Christmas. It is a joy to behold in the often dreary, winter months.

Advent Connections

My research revealed more advent associations. The Cornish Wildlife Trust mention a regional name of Father Christmas. It is also called Virgin’s Bower in folklore. The climber is credited with sheltering Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus as they fled to Egypt to escape King Herod.

Names Galore

The myriad of names and associations do not stop there. The plant bears a host of other common and regional names even beyond those recorded by meticulous Grigson in his Englishman’s Flora. Somerset (as ever) seems to beat every other county with its wide range of colourful, evocative names:

  1. Blind-man’s-buff
  2. Bushy Beard
  3. Daddy’s Beard
  4. Daddy’s Whiskers
  5. Devil’s Guts
  6. Father Time
  7. Gipsy’s Bacca
  8. Grandfather’s Whiskers
  9. Granfy’s Beard
  10. Hag-rope
  11. Lady’s Bower
  12. Old Man
  13. Old Man’s Beard
  14. Poor Man’s Friend
  15. Shepherd’s Delight
  16. Smoking Cane
  17. Snow In Harvest
  18. Virgin’s Bower
  19. Withywine

Devon contents itself with two names: Old Man’s Beard, Smoking Cane.

Wiltshire has ten: Bedwind, Bedwine, Daddy’s Whiskers, Devil’s Guts, Grey Beard, Honesty, Old Man’s Beard, Skipping Ropes, Withywine.

Other English names include: Beggar’s Plant, Bind-with, Biting Clematis, Devil’s Twine, Evergreen Clematis, Hedge Vine, Love, Maiden’s Honesty, Smoke Weed, Traveller’s Joy, White Vine

Good v. Evil

I’m pretty sure that as a child I associated white beards with Father Christmas. Grigson highlights associations with both good and evil. He introduces a more sinister note in that an allusion to the Old Man was more likely to refer to the Devil. Old Man’s Beard has a particularly devilish reputation in New Zealand where it is considered an invasive plant, grapevine weed and thug towards small trees. In any event, this vigorous, wild plant is not suitable for the average garden. There are plenty of garden cultivars that are more easily tamed.

Name Origin

The Latin genus name, Clematis, originates from Greek. Klematis is the diminutive form of Klema. It describes a vine branch, shoot or twig that has been broken off. The epithet vitalba means white vine. It comes from a compound of white (alba) and vine (vitis).

Gallery of Images

White, wild Clematis vitalba flowers in July 2020
White flowers of Clematis vitalba in July 2020 © Karen Andrews

Old Man’s Beard supports biodiversity. It helps provide winter protection for birds and hibernating insects. It acts as a wind break and is also a food source. The wispy seedheads are grazed by animals and eaten by birds, especially by Goldfinches and Greenfinches.

Hedge-trimming should be avoided during the nesting season between March and August. Personally, I miss seeing so much Old Man’s Beard between the months of September and February.

References and Further Reading

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and BotanyKaren.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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