Wednesday 23 October 2019

Clematis now in a blaze of autumn colour


IN GARDENS and on house walls, Clematis, the popular ornamental climber, has now gone over in a blaze of autumnal colour its green leaves turning through a palette of shades of mustard yellow to coral pink and Burgundy red before finally falling. All of these garden climbers are native to China and are derived from stock imported here for their decorative qualities. The original stock came to north-west Europe via Japanese gardens during the 19th century.

However, in addition to the garden plants of oriental origin, there is one temperate European species of Clematis that is native to the south of England. It reached Ireland as an alien and managed to naturalise itself in our hedgerows. A classic railway plant, it has become locally common in the east, south and midlands of Ireland but much scarcer and more scattered in the west and north.

It is in fruit at present and, while it does not put on the blaze of autumnal colours that many of the garden plants do, its fruits are immediately recognisable even from a distance. The species in question is Traveller's-clematis vitalba. Its fruits are so prominent at this time of year that the plant enjoys the seasonal second name of Old Man's Beard. Each fruit is surrounded by a fluffy off-white Santa Claus beard. The fruits are clustered together and each is crowned by a long, feathery appendage, the remains of the flower's style that becomes greatly elongated. These long feathery plumes can last well into the winter before the seeds are dispersed by the wind.

Traveller's-joy is a member of the Buttercup family. Its liana-like woody stems enable the plant to climb and scramble on hedges, trees, boundary fences, railway embankments and ruins utilising lime mortar. It also clings, curls and twines around supports by means of its twisted leaf stalks. In suitable conditions it can become rampant and dominate the ground. A versatile alien, it can equally well crawl along the ground or climb trees to an impressive height.

The invasive alien is not without importance in local food chains. On summer nights night-flying moths sipped nectar from its scented flowers. By day, hover flies, bees and other insects were attracted to the flowers. Several species of moth caterpillar fed on its leaves and now, in autumn, finches, especially Goldfinches, feed on seeds picked from the fluffy depths of the Old Man's Beard.

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