Old Man’s Beard

The narrow lane that rises up out of the secret valley beyond our little stone cottage is bordered on one side by Cotswold dry stone walls and, on the other, by remnants of an ancient hedgerow. One of the ways of identifying those that date from the original wildwood is by the number of plant species found in them for ‘modern’ hedgerows (those that have been planted after 1600) contain far fewer varieties. One of the plants that dominate the lane is known as Old Man’s Beard. In the photo below, it is difficult to tell what is snow and what is the, somewhat bedraggled, fluffy white seedhead that gives this wild clematis it’s common name.

Now the snow has gone and the seed heads, not quite as pristine as before, have recovered but still live up to their name. They swamp the lower, trimmed parts of the hedge and it is hard to imagine how the field maples, hawthorn, sloes and other woody plants cope and survive.

Three days ago, the birds began singing once more and claiming their territories so Spring can’t be too far off (I’m being optimistic here as the sun has been shining too). The Old Man’s Beard will, like garden clematis, be amongst the first to send out new shoots and leaves, in the process knocking off the old seedheads. For a short while the hedge has the opportunity to flourish before the clematis flowers appear. Although blooming in their thousands, individually they are quite insignificant and it is the scent that is the more noticeable – not the perfumed scents of roses and honeysuckles but honeyish, delicate yet cloying too, somehow. And the bees, especially the bumblebees can’t get enough of their nectar.

As a young child, I once stayed at a schoolfriend’s grandparents and in their garden was an old chalk quarry, long disused. I would love to revisit it now but have no idea where it was – for years I believed that the village was called Loose Chippings. It was only once I grew up that I realised that this was the sign that council workers had put up after repairing the road outside their house! There must, I assume, have been trees in the pit – and it was certainly overgrown – for the Old Man’s Beard had sent up its long vines high into the tree tops. Where this happens the stems become quite thick, strong and woody and we spent many happy hours there swinging through the trees Tarzan-like. They have also done this outside our cottage, where the hedgerow has grown into treelike proportions, although only once, (when I felt confident no-one would see me), have I swung on them. The exhilaration was the same and proves the thought that men never truly grow up but remain little boys that need to shave.

Virgin’s Bower and Traveller’s Joy are two of the other common names given to Clematis virginica. The first, one assumes, because of its tendencies to drape across other plants: how lovely it would be slumber gently beneath its shade on a warm day, breathing its scent and listening to the bees droning. According to my Herbal, in the past, wayfarers would make tea to soothe away headaches, wrap soaked cloths around their weary feet and treat blisters and saddle sores. No wonder it was called Traveller’s Joy. I love to think that along our little lane, the old drover’s would sit on the grassy roadside banks and rest, perhaps stopping for some ale at the old inn next door to us (and our only neighbour), their sheep and cattle drinking from the secret valley’s meandering river. Did they also think, like me, this place to be so special? I doubt it, somehow.

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8 thoughts on “Old Man’s Beard

  1. Hello Johnson,You know, one of my favorite parts of visiting England and Ireland is reading the road signs. I even took pictures of all of the different ones. I do remember seeing "Loose Chippings" and it took a few seconds for me to figure out what it meant. I also love that the word "modern" means something totally different to the British then it does to us Americans ;^)

  2. You're now properly added to my google reader, so if I miss a post on Blotanical, it won't slip by!One day I need to scan the images of Clematis virginiana – Virgin's Bower, when it grew in my town garden in Chicago. I almost feel guilty at having tamed such a lovely wild thing. Hardly recognizable on the arbor I welded for it, with sculptures of putti at its base!Alice

  3. Hello Noelle – I remember walking in Montreal for ages as my cousin led me to an 'old' (200 years) church. She was amused when I didn't notice it, especially after I explained that the one in the village near us was 1100 years old. You're right – we do think of old and modern in slightly different ways. Another case of our 'two nations divided by a common language', I think!

  4. Tim – needless to say I am sure that you should include the Cotswolds in your UK trip. No personal knowledge of Kemble Mill but it is close to Cirencester (where I spent childhood holidays staying with cousins) which has many ruins (and a good museum)from the days when it was an important Roman town.Also nearby is the village of Bibury – idyllic. Look it up in Google Images. You will want to spend your entire trip in the Cotswolds, I can promise!And don't forget Oxford, with its ancient colleges, which is also not far away…

  5. It looks and sounds very pretty where it can grow where it wants to. After you mentioning it in a comment on my blog I looked it up, but it sounds like it's a bit too invasive here. Probably because our climates are so similar it would just take off. I guess it's a good one to enjoy out in the wild where the bees can enjoy it.

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