During the summer months our hedgerows are full of growth, flowers, and green fruits. So much so that it can sometimes be a little difficult to distinguish all the species that are present in an old well-established hedge. In the winter, however, although almost all is leafless, one or two plants may reveal themselves in a spectacular fashion and Traveller’s Joy is one such plant.
The very name of Traveller’s Joy conjures up something rather special, although at this time of year another colloquial name, Old Man’s Beard, becomes much more appropriate. This is the wild clematis, a rampant woody climber that scrambles through hedges and trees to display its small cream-coloured vanilla scented flower-sprays. With so much going on in the hedgerows during summer it does not make a big impact.
Interestingly, clematis flowers do not have petals. Even our large-flowered garden varieties do not have petals, instead they show off their beauty with coloured sepals, which initially provide protection for the developing flower bud. The sepals of the wild clematis are green and very small, so the plant can go unnoticed, at least until the flowers appear.
Wild clematis uses it leaf stems to provide support by entwining them around shrubs and trees. In this manner it can climb up to a hundred feet to reach the light in woodland and in doing so, over many years, produces thick rope-like stems that hang free of the ‘host’ tree.
If it is overlooked during the summer, this plant really stands out when winter’s steely sunlight shines through the mass of fluffy seed-heads. One wonders whether the 16th century botanist John Gerrard named the plant Traveller’s Joy, because of its bright and uplifting sight on chilly winter days when people travelled on foot along England’s highways and byways.
Adrian Walters, Clerk to the Trustees of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity and Honorary Freeman of Sudbury