If I were still living in New Zealand, I would be horrified to see this plant, Clematis vitalba. It’s a British native that was introduced as a garden plant but it very quickly escaped into forest areas where, in the temperate climate, its vigorous growth quickly smothers native plants. Unsurprisingly, it has been outlawed and is listed on the National Pest Plant Accord.
Here in Britain, though, I can enjoy the silky plumed seed heads that make such a pretty show at this time of year. It’s easy to see how they led to its common name of Old Man’s Beard, but this clematis has many other vernacular names, including traveller’s joy, virgin’s bower, ladies’ bower, love vine, and traveller’s ivy. In the south-east of England it is also known as Boy’s Bacca and Shepherd’s Delight because poorer country folk once used the dry stems as a tobacco substitute.
In France, its common name is herbe aux gueux, the beggar’s herb because, in times past, beggars would make use of its toxic sap to purposefully irritate their skin in order to provoke sympathetic donations from passers by. All parts of this clematis are poisonous so look but don’t touch!