Old Man’s Beard, or Clematis Vitalba, is a wild clematis that scrambles profusely over many of the trees and hedgerows in this area. Apparently its presence indicates chalky soil, which must be why there’s so much of it growing on the Downs.
In the summer Old Man’s Beard produces many small creamy white flowers. At this time of the year the seed heads have become fluffy and white – like an old man’s beard – but earlier in the winter, when they are still green, they have a wonderful starry shape. Both look fabulous in winter flower arrangements. The fluffier and riper the seed heads become the more delicate they are and the more easily the fluff gets blown away. A quick squirt with hair spray keeps them in place and stops your flower arrangements from disappearing on to the floor (try to use one without a smell).
I have used them in several ways: Cut short in bouquets and table centres; long and trailing in large arrangements; and lots of lengths of the woody stems twisted into a circle to make a wintery wreath, with paperwhite narcissus pushed in around the circle (of course other flowers would look pretty too, hellebores for instance, but they wouldn’t last long out of water and you’d need to used orchid vials hidden behind the wreath to keep them fresh).
Old Man’s Beard’s other country name is Traveller’s Joy. In France it is known as ‘Herbe aux Gueux’ which means beggar’s or rascal’s herb as beggars were said to rub its acrid sap onto their skin to irritate it and make it look red and ulcerated. Good for business apparently but I think I’ll stick to using it for less painful purposes.