The na­ture of things

Trav­eller’s joy

Country Life Every Week - - Town & Country Notebook - Edited by Vic­to­ria Marston

IN lime­stone coun­try, par­tic­u­larly the chalk downs, a ram­pant climber romps over hedgerows and softly blan­kets the shrub­beries that were planted to mar­gin main roads. In win­ter, Clema­tis vi­talba re­veals the rea­son why one of its folk names is ‘old man’s beard’, for its clus­tered seeds each drape a long, silky trail that has a sil­very bright­ness when new, but by now is closer to old pewter. The ef­fect of those seeds, spread en masse through the hedgerow, is of un­kempt, beardy growth over­lay­ing its brit­tle stems.

Those stems clam­ber over any­thing sturdy enough to bear them, send­ing out leaf ten­drils that spiral around branches and twigs strong enough to pro­vide pur­chase for fur­ther growth; hawthorns, dog­woods, field maples and the like are of­ten pressed into such ser­vice. As spring ma­tures, the fresh leaves will be crowned by scat­ter­ings of creamy-white, starry flow­ers that are slightly fra­grant and for­aged by but­ter­flies and moths.

Flow­er­ing time gave rise to the clema­tis’s other com­mon name of ‘trav­eller’s joy’, a lovely ti­tle the El­iz­a­bethan botanist John Ger­ard records as his own in­ven­tion. He ad­mired the shad­ows cast by their bushy growth, but also the ‘beau­tie of the flow­ers, and the pleas­ant scent or savour of the same’. Gil­bert White, some two cen­turies after, ad­mired the sil­very seed heads shim­mer­ing in a gale, ‘like in­sects on the wing’. KBH

Il­lus­tra­tion by Bill Dono­hoe

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