The nature of things
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