Traveller's joy (Clematis vitalba)

Also known as old man’s beard, this woody member of the buttercup family is often seen scrambling over hedgerows.

Common name: traveller’s joy, old man's beard

Scientific name: Clematis vitalba

Family: Ranunculaceae

What does traveller's joy look like?

Leaves: pinnately compound, with three to five leaflets which are elliptical in shape with rough toothed margins. Leaves grow in an opposite leaf arrangement.

Flowers: white in colour, the various stamens are clearly visible and the flowers are in clusters. The flowers are around two centimetres in width. Although the flowers appears to have four petals they are in fact sepals.

Fruit: seed clusters which have a feathered appearance and are white-grey in colour, they are called achenes. It is the fruit which gives the plant its other name 'old man’s beard'.

Not to be confused with...

A distinctive species, its pinnately compound leaves, flowers and characteristic fruit means it is not often confused with other species.

Where and when to find traveller's joy

Where: it's native to the south of England but has spread and is now found in many areas of the UK, except Northern Scotland. This scrambling plant it is often found growing on top of hedgerows, bushes, scrub or trees. It favours chalky soil.

Clematis vitalba is considered an invasive weed where it has spread outside its native range. It can form dense thickets blanketing trees and shrubs.

When: a perennial it flowers from July to September.

Value to wildlife

The flowers of this plant are visited by pollinating insects during the day, such as bees as well as hoverflies. Traveller’s joy is also a food plant for moth species such as the pretty chalk carpet moth, Melanthia procellata; the small waved umber, Horisme vitalbata; the small emerald, Hemistola chrysoprasaria, as well as others. The seedheads of this plant also provide a food source for birds, such as goldfinches.

Uses and folklore

Medicine: traveller’s joy has been used in various treatments as it is said to contain anti-inflammatory properties. Traditional recipes used the plant to treat various ailments including skin irritations and stress.

Folklore: the Latin clematis is thought to derive from the Greek word for shoot as it is a climbing plant. It was also suggested that traveller’s joy did the devil’s work as it would kill other plants by outcompeting them. This is why it is viewed as an intrusive weed by many people. As this species is a woody plant the stem was used in the past to make baskets. It is called traveller's joy because it adorns hedges and banks in the countryside with billows of beautiful feathery seed heads in the grey months leading up to Christmas.

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