Old man’s beard – January 2022 Weed of the Month

Old man’s beard gets its name from its feathery white seed heads that stay on the plant through mid to late winter after it has already lost all of its leaves. Winter is the best time of year to identify this species.

Old man’s beard // Clematis vitalba

||Also known as Traveler’s joy or Clematis||

While most plants stand out in the spring and summer when they produce colorful flowers, or in the fall when their leaves turn vibrant shades of red and yellow, old man’s beard is different because it is most obvious in the winter. As leaves and flowers of surrounding plants die back to prepare for the cold times to come, old man’s beard loses its leaves but keeps its distinct fluffy seed heads. These seed heads form in the fall and stay until mid to late winter. From a distance they have been said to resemble a long white beard, hence the plant’s common name “old man’s beard.”  

Note: The same name is used for a forest lichen that also resembles a beard. Hopefully you can tell them apart!

Left: Bearded Lichen [Usnea longissima Ach.], sometimes called old man’s beard
Right: Old man’s Beard [Clematis vitalba], sometimes called traveler’s joy
This is why scientists use Latin names! A lot of plants have multiple different common names, which one you use typically depends on where you are and who you are talking to.

Old man’s beard, or Clematis vitalba,  is considered invasive in many places due to its ability to take down mature trees and dominate forest understories. The species is incredibly versatile and can live in a variety of conditions. It is commonly associated with degraded and disturbed areas and is even seen as invasive in some parts of its native range. Because of its hardiness, it is not well controlled by climate. In its native range, insects, mites, nematodes, and pathogens have been known to target the species, but none of them have been deemed “safe” for introduction into the Pacific Northwest.  

Old man’s beard was first imported into the United States by gardeners between 1830 and 1840. It prefers locations with high annual rainfall, preferably in the winter months, which makes the Pacific Northwest an ideal location. 

Old man’s beard plants can produce A LOT of flowers in one growing season, which is ideal for pollinators. Unfortunately, their negative impacts outweigh the value of the plant in many ways. If you have old man’s beard on your property, we highly recommend controlling the plants and replacing them with native climbing plants or shrubs.

Unlike some noxious weeds that mostly dominate open spaces, old man’s beard is known for growing on and around desirable vegetation, including plants that produce fruit, and other food and habitat sources for wildlife.

Why it’s a noxious weed

Old man’s beard spreads aggressively. It can grow five to seven times faster than ivy, with each stem capable of producing 30 feet of growth in one season. Its woody vines can grow up to 100 feet long! Vines like English ivy can grow upward, but typically stop growing longer once they reach the top of the tree or surface that they’re climbing. Old man’s beard can grow back down once it has reached the highest peak and then re-root and start all over again. If that wasn’t alarming enough, each plant can produce over 100,000 seeds. 

Like other invasive vines, old man’s beard creates shade over the foliage of trees and bushes, preventing them from getting sunlight. Vines hold a lot of water, which makes them very heavy, and old man’s beard vines become woody, so it has even more weight. The weight eventually kills the supporting trees and bushes.  

Because it is so widespread in King County, old man’s beard is a non-regulated Class C noxious weed and property owners are not required to control the plant on their property, though it is always recommended. However, old man’s beard is being controlled as part of urban forest restoration in Seattle and elsewhere. When people control it on their property, everyone wins because there is less of it to spread. 

Map of the distribution of old man’s beard showing where it is native and where it has been introduced.

Identification and control

Check out our Old Man’s Beard Best Management Practices for more detailed control information.

Visit our webpage to learn how to identify old man’s beard 

Select a photo below to get a closer look!

Non-invasive alternatives to old man’s beard

All plants listed below are recommended by the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board 

Clematis paniculata (Sweet Autumn Clematis) (gardenia.net) 

Lonicera ciliosa (Orange Honeysuckle) (gardenia.net) 

Clematis viticella & cultivars (Italian clematis) (gardenia.net) 

Additional resources

Clematis vitalba (old man’s beard) (cabi.org) 

Old Man’s Beard | Clematis Vitalba | Pest Rating Proposals and Final Ratings (ca.gov) 

USDA Plants Database | Clematis vitalba

Clematis vitalba (portlandoregon.gov) 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.