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.
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.
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:
- Bushy Beard
- Daddy’s Beard
- Daddy’s Whiskers
- Devil’s Guts
- Father Time
- Gipsy’s Bacca
- Grandfather’s Whiskers
- Granfy’s Beard
- Lady’s Bower
- Old Man
- Old Man’s Beard
- Poor Man’s Friend
- Shepherd’s Delight
- Smoking Cane
- Snow In Harvest
- Virgin’s Bower
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.
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
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
- CABI (2020): Clematis Vitalba (Old Man’s Beard). Invasive Species Compendium.
- Cornwall Wildlife Trust (?): Traveller’s-joy.
- Grigson, Geoffrey (1996): The Englishman’s Flora. Helicon. London.
- Harper, Douglas (2001-2020): clematis (n.). Online Etymology Dictionary.
- Kent Wildlife Trust (): How to make a hedge for wildlife.
- Plantlife (2020): Traveller’s-joy. Clematis vitalba.
- RHS (2020): Clematis vitalba. Traveller’s Joy. The Royal Horticultural Society.
- Rice, Graham (): Clematis. June Issue. Sideshoots. BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine.
- Woodlands.co.uk (2020): Old Man’s Beard or Traveller’s Joy.
- Woodland Trust (?): Traveller’s Joy (Clematis vitalba).
- Yarham, David (2000): Traveller’s Joy or Old Man’s Beard – Clematis vitalba. The Magog Trust.
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