Clematis vitalba

Clematis of the Month for January 2019

described by Fiona Woolfenden

C. vitalba on railings in front of a church©Ken Woolfenden

C. vitalba on railings in front of a church

Travelling around over the Christmas and New Year period is when Clematis vitalba can be seen at its best in Southern England. The trees and shrubs at the side of motorways are decked in garlands of fluffy white seed heads that show up very well even on dark dull days. Unfortunately one cannot stop and take a photo on a motorway! Fortunately it also grows in the hedges alongside country roads, and in other places. The photo above was taken a few years ago on the railings in front of a small village church.

C. vitalba is also known as 'Traveller's Joy' and it is obvious why, as it is a pleasure when travelling to see the seed heads. It has another name in England - 'Old Man's Beard' - and at this time of year, the seed heads bring to mind Santa's beard!

The flowers are small and insignificant; 15-25mm or 0.6 to 1 inch in diameter. They are greenish/cream/white with generally 4 recurving sepals and they are supposed to have an almond scent. Often you miss seeing the flower, but you can't avoid spotting the fluffy white seed heads later. The seed heads are initially long silky tails which mature over time into white fluffy balls. In the second photo below, you can see that the seed head in the top of the photo is starting to change from being silky to fluffy. The seed heads on this plant were actually very noticeable when the photo was taken in September, growing in a chain link fence in the sun by the side of an out of town shopping area car park.
C. vitalba flowers©Fiona Woolfenden C. vitalba seedheads©Fiona Woolfenden

C. vitalba flowers

C. vitalba seedheads

C. vitalba has been used by European civilisations for a long time. I dipped into some of my clematis books and was impressed with some of the details that I found. Magnus Johnson tells us in his Clematis the Genus that 'The stone age people who built pile dwellings by the Swiss lakes, were already using the stems of Clematis vitalba to make ropes. The very long stems, normally several meters, make excellent binding material.

In Southern Europe the stems of C. vitalba are also used to make fish traps, for basketmaking and wicker-work. Even pipe stems are be made from them. These are practical and can be discarded when full of tobacco juice.

In the Canton of Luzern in Switzerland the stems of C. vitalba used to be boiled to extract a bast from the inner part of the bark. The bast was used to bind together bunches of the grass, Nardus stricta, which were put in wooden funnels for straining milk'. ('Bast' is fibrous material from a plant used as fibre in matting or cord).

The sap of C. vitalba stems was used by beggars in Roman times to cause blistering on their hands and so that when they stretched their hands out for money they aroused more compassion. Magnus tells us that C. vitalba was also used in medicine; 'topically as a blistering plaster and internally as sudorific and diuretic drug. Dried parts of the plant have also been smoked like cigarettes.' Magnus adds 'They give a good puff and do not catch fire' and that 'boys would get dizzy when trying to smoke'. I wonder how he knew!

'Clematis may also be eaten as a vegetable. In Russia and Italy, the young shoots of C. vitalba are boiled in water and eaten like asparagus. They can also be cut into short pieces and pickled in vinegar like capers.'

C. vitalba is not a clematis that I would recommend growing in your garden unless it is very big, with room to let it spread. Chris Grey-Wilson says that it can grow 30m (100 ft.) which gives you an idea of its potential size. Often it does not grow quite so tall but give it a position and climate that it likes, then it will be off! In England it is said to prefer growing on chalky soils but it grows near where I live which is generally clay soil.

C. vitalba is native to a large part of central and southern Europe and an be found from England in the West to Turkey in the East, Iran and down to North Africa. Chris Grey-Wilson states that it has naturalised further north and in Ireland and further afield, for example Northern England.

Within the last 100 years C. vitalba was introduced into New Zealand as an ornamental plant and it has found the climate very much to its taste. It grows very well, so much so that it is now declared a weed and the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network provides advice on how to get rid of it.

C. vitalba is a joy to behold at this time of year in England and brings pleasure in the English hedgerows or alongside a motorway - but as with many vigorous plants it should be kept in its native habitat.


Fiona Woolfenden Fiona Woolfenden

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