A range of flowers in Colins Paddock

Map of the Down

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Wild flowers at Magog Down prev  :  next

Traveller’s Joy or Old Man’s Beard - Clematis vitalba

travellers_joyMotorists pausing for a break in the lay-by opposite Wandlebury may find their spirits lifted by the sight of this plant festooning the boundary fence of Magog Down. A member of the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), it is one of the most characteristic plants of chalky soils in southern Britain. It is commonly found scrambling over hedgerows and thickets by means of its long leaf stalks which twine around twigs and small branches.

In summer it bears panicles of greenish-white, vanilla-scented flowers about 2 cm in diameter. Each flower has a calyx of four, greenish-white sepals (there are no true petals) surrounding a small forest of stamens and a central cluster of carpels. The flowers produce no nectar but are pollinated by pollen-collecting bees and pollen eating flies. Once fertilisation has occurred, the carpels develop into small, one seeded fruit with long feathery styles (hence “old man’s beard”) which persist well into winter and help to disperse the seeds. Gilbert White noted them in November 1788 “driving before a gale” and appearing “like insects on the wing”.

Lengths of dried winter stems have been used in place of cigarettes (hence the colloquial name: “boy’s bacca”), but if you are thinking that it might prove a safe alternative to real tobacco, be warned that Clematis vitalba does have some very unpleasant properties. Bruised leaves and flowers, for example, will inflame the skin and irritate the eyes and throat causing copious tears and coughing. The plant has, nevertheless, been used medicinally for the treatment of ulcerative conditions and in homeopathic treatment of eye infections.

The name “traveller’s joy” was given by the 16th century herbalist Gerard, who wrote of it “making a goodly show” in every hedgerow from Gravesend to Canterbury. But if, rather than a travelling herbalist, you had been a farm worker tackling an overgrown hedge with a billhook, you might have found that the tough, woody stems twining round every bush and tree induced emotions far removed from joy! Indeed you might have been more disposed to use yet another of the plant’s colloquial names "devils guts”!

David Yarham
November 2000


3_travellers_joy_p0142512_453.Traveller's Joy or Devil's Guts?! Whatever your view of it, this plant so characteristic of chalky soils is abundant on Magog Down through the winter. Photo by Matthew Butler.

November 2017

See also...

Report of the visit from Cambridge Natural History Society in August 2017


News about a visit by the local branch of Butterfly Conservation charity taking place in August 2016


News about the very special area of Colin's Bank, published in February 2015

Pasque Flower

One of our Friends sent us this beautiful picture of some Pasque Flowers taken in amongst the Cowslips in May 2016.pasqueflower_jb_may2016_crop_453

Photo by Jill Butler