Traveller’s Joy (Clematis Vitalba)

Traveller’s Joy (Clematis Vitalba)


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Traveller’s Joy, also known as Old Man’s Beard, has a long history of use in traditional English cottage gardens. It is a native of the south of England, where it can be found along woodland edges, or growing through hedgerows, but has a range which extends throughout the UK (with the exception of Northern Scotland). It also grows across Europe, spanning the Caucasus and extending as far south as Northern Africa.

When cooked thoroughly the young shoots makes an excellent vegetable, that is sweet with only a very slight bitterness. It is one of the most commonly foraged plants in Italy – where it is commonly used in omelettes and frittata, in the regional, wild vegetable dishes Pistic, and Prebuggiun. Its use as a vegetable is also well documented in Spain, and in other parts of Europe. In fact, the widespread use of its spring shoots seems to be one of the best examples of a well established tradition for processing plants which are unpalatable in their raw state.

The thoroughly dried leaves are also reported to have been used, in the past, to replace or extend tobacco – although we haven’t tried this.

A long-lived, highly ornamental, woody climber, Clematis vitalba is an excellent addition to any garden. It produces masses of scented, creamy white flowers in early summer, which sometimes last into September. These are followed by attractive feathery seed heads – from which the name Old Man’s Beard derives – that will often remain on the plants right through the autumn. It is an excellent bee and hoverfly plant, and birds (particularly finches) eat the seeds.

It prefers a deep, moist soil, with a pH above 6 (i.e. neutral to alkaline, although it can tolerate lower than this), with good drainage, ideally with its roots in the shade. In Scotland and the North of the country, where it is pressing up against the Northern-most limit of its range, it should still succeed against the south-facing wall of a house or similar structure, with just enough thermal mass to take the edge of the coldest winters and create the perfect microclimate.

Caution This plant should not be consumed raw. Like many other members of the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), it contains compounds which decompose, when exposed to air or when the cells are damaged, to form the potent irritant and vesicant (causes blistering) lactone Protoanemonin. Protoanemonin is, however, unstable and degrades in turn to form harmless anemonin when thoroughly dried or cooked (it is typically boiled, for at least 20 minutes, separately before mixing it with other ingredients).

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