Old Man’s Beard

15th March 2013

Since last autumn these curious balls of fluff have been covering the hedgerows particularly in areas with alkaline soil, here in the Chilterns the stuff is everywhere.

Wild Clematis seed heads Clematis vitalba

The plant is Wild Clematis Clematis vitalba otherwise know as Traveller’s Joy, Virgin’s Bower or the descriptive Old Man’s Beard.  It is a climbing, scrambling plant often covering hedgerows and walls and woodland edge and is particularly prolific in some areas such as the Forest of  Dean, the Chiltern Hills etc. and although it may grow in the same way as a vine or cheap clomid Honeysuckle it is actually a member of the Buttercup family.

The plant has a multitude of uses in the bushcraft world. The seed heads themselves make a great tinder especially as an ember extender for friction fire lighting by placing in the middle of coarser tinder in a tinder bundle.  The fibrous outer bark peels away from the stems and makes a superb tinder in its own right.  Hand fulls of long lengths of this bark can be removed by twisting the stems in your hands and these long fibers can be used to make cordage, even thick ropes can be made quickly and readily.  The stems themselves are flexible and can be used in basketry, especially if boiled. The wood its self, once seasoned is light and fibrous and is one of the best native species to use for the hearth on a hand drill friction fire lighting set, working especially well with an Elder drill.

Medicinally, the plant historically had several uses. It has restorative and stimulant properties ideal for treating the weariness caused from travelling long distances, hence the name Traveller’s Joy. Ancient drovers made a tea from the young leaves or added them to beer. It was also made into lotions to treat saddle sores and blisters as well as being used to treat ringworm.

It has been and is eaten in France and Italy as well as the UK. It is normally the young shoots up to about 4cm long that are used. They can be cooked in various ways or can be pickled.  Fried in olive oil they are very pleasant.

It has been listed by some sources as being toxic. As a member of the buttercup family it does contain the glycoside ranunculin which is broken down to the irritant protoanemonin (see Plant self defense…part 1). However, this toxin has no cumulative effect, is broken down quickly by cooking and is only likely to be present in significant amounts in mature leaves which are very bitter and unlikely to be eaten.

As you can see from the next picture, the buds are nowhere near being ready yet but keep an eye out as there is only a very short window of opportunity for collecting them, before they become too bitter …..if you miss it, you will have to wait another 12 months for the next chance.

Out of focus shot of the small leaf buds just appearing on the Clematis stems.


Kev Palmer

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