Old man’s beard still hasn’t gone

Old man’s beard still hasn’t gone

Wellington recently competed in the iNaturalist City Nature Challenge. During the four days of the Challenge people recorded as many observations and species as possible. Science researcher Lara Shepherd was shocked that the introduced weed old man’s beard was the second-equal most observed species in Wellington. 

Given that the City Nature Challenge by definition occurs in cities, I was anticipating garden plants and weeds to feature strongly. However, I did not expect one of New Zealand’s worst weeds, old man’s beard, to tie with māhoe as the second most observed species in Wellington!

What is old man’s beard?

Old man’s beard (Clematis vitalba) was introduced to New Zealand as a garden plant sometime before 1922.

It is a woody climbing vine that is related to the nine native species of Clematis. Old man’s beard can be distinguished from native Clematis species by its deciduousness, its flowering during summer and autumn, its furrowed bark and leaves with five leaflets (rather than three).

The leaves of old man's beard have five leaflets.
The leaves of old man’s beard have five leaflets, rather than the three of native Clematis species. Photo by Lara Shepherd Te Papa
Furrowed bark is a distinctive feature of an old man’s beard vine. Photo by Lara Shepherd Te Papa

Why is old man’s beard a problem?

Old man’s beard has a number of features that make it a particularly bad weed. It has a high shade tolerance so can invade established native forest. It is a very vigorous vine that can grow up to 4m per year.

Old man’s beard forms dense thickets that can smother and kill native plants and prevent native species regenerating.

It produces a very high number of seeds that can spread by wind, water and birds. These seeds can survive for 8–10 years in the soil and pieces of stem can re-sprout where they come in contact with the ground.

Old man’s beard produces a large number of seeds that can be spread by wind, water and birds. Photo by Lara Shepherd Te Papa
Old man’s beard can rapidly smother trees. Photo by Lara Shepherd Te Papa

Old man’s beard was first recognised as a serious environmental weed in the 1980s and millions of dollars has been spent on its control across the country.

Is old man’s beard spreading in Wellington?

I have noticed over the last few years that old man’s beard is increasing in my neighbourhood. And comments on online native plant discussion forums suggest that it is becoming more common all across Wellington.

This increase likely relates to the recent decrease in control efforts. Wellington City Council (WCC) used to control old man’s beard in its open space and road reserve land, with the aim of preventing plants seeding.

However, now WCC only undertakes weed control in reserves of high conservation value and allocates enough funding to control weeds in about 8% of Wellington’s reserves. This means that old man’s beard is not controlled on many of the roadside reserves around the city, because these sites are considered to not have high ecological value.

In the wider Wellington area the Greater Wellington Regional Council previously controlled pest plants like old man’s beard on private property. However, they no longer do this and now encourage private landowners to control such weeds themselves. The Hutt City Council still controls some weeds, such as old man’s beard, on private property but they have a limited budget.

Old man’s beard must go – but how?

Around the city we are embracing pest animal trapping. However, our pest plants are flourishing. But to quote David Bellamy’s iconic TV advert from the 1980s, “old man’s beard must go!”

On private land it is currently up to Wellingtonians to control old man’s beard. If you have old man’s beard on your property, you can remove it, with tips on control available on the Greater Wellington website. Encourage or help your neighbours to also remove it from their properties.

You can report old man’s beard in WCC reserves using their form (including photos to show the size and context of the plant(s) with location details), although control will only be undertaken in priority reserves.

If you think that the WCC should be controlling old man’s beard beyond just high ecological value reserves then let them know. I think WCC should be controlling old man’s beard on all steep hillsides in Wellington, where access is unsafe for the public.

Large old man’s beard infestation on a steep bank on Mt Victoria. Photo by Lara Shepherd Te Papa
Rampant old man’s beard on a steep hillside on Mt Victoria. Photo by Lara Shepherd Te Papa

For reserve land of supposed ‘low ecological value’, such as road reserves and much of the town belt, it is presently up to individuals and community groups to control old man’s beard. There are a number of regional restoration groups who undertake weeding like this Facebook group  Old Man’s Beard Must Go – Aro Valley. If your neighborhood doesn’t have such a group you could set up your own.

Without further control old man’s beard may quickly become the most common species in Wellington!

Read about some of the highlights from Wellington’s City Nature Challenge 2021


  1. Author

    Update – I’d submitted the above photos of the old man’s beard on the steep banks through the WCC fixit app and requested removal since the sites are too steep for private individuals to access. Someone came to have a look but said they won’t do anything about it because of the location (presumably too steep for them too?)

  2. Te Ahumairangi ecological restoration are working hard to pull out and cut down as much OMB as volunteers can manage on the hill behind the city. Even though it’s a Significant natural areas (SNA), and on council land, there is not enough funding to help remove the sections of OMB that are not in reach or ability for volunteers to remove.

    Unfortunately, there are large ancient plantations of the stuff, which have huge stumps requiring a chainsaw (not permitted activity by volunteers). Add to that re-invasion by surrounding private (and public!) properties.

    On a good note, we do notice that along the main pathways, the general public pull out what OMB seedings they see. We called it ghost weeding;, a remarkable Wellingtonian mindset and skill. The fact a large proportion of our population can identify and remove weeds whilst out on their daily walk means we never lose hope! More hands make light work.

    WCC help on the heavy duty stuff is urgently needed

    There’s even a clump on the steep slope behind the prime ministers residence …

    1. Author

      Ghost weeding – I love it!

  3. I was horrified to see a huge clump of it seeding just down the road from Ōtari-Wilton’s Bush! It’s so much worse all over Wellington than it has been in years. After WCC spent so much time and money for so many years to control it, to now have it back out of control is heartbreaking.

  4. Old Man’s Beard is having a bumper season here in Brooklyn. It’s heartbreaking to see it taking over native vegetation all along the road to the south coast, on both reserve land and private. For years I would call the council about relatively minor stands of it hoping they would control it or pressure landowners to. Council kept saying it was no longer their responsibility and I should talk to the owners of particular properties if it bothered me. This never went well. Now those small sites have spread seeds far and wide and it’s only going to get worse.

    1. Having identified the “interloper” on my property, I remember the Council sent a letter telling me to clear it off my section or there would be consequences…cannot remember what that meant! We did get rid of it despite it being clearly in evidence on the the neighbour’s property but nothing was done about it. Seems like rules do not apply on an even basis. I cannot see any on my land now but it is definitely on the properties near me, and taking over on the verges of the street. All the trees in Kainui Road need a good trim vis a vis leaves all over the road and blocking the drains. I phoned the Council some months ago and asked for some remedial work…..nothing has happened to date. And we wonder why Wellington suburbs are looking so neglected!

  5. It is very much in evidence in Kainui Road, Hataitai. I removed it from my property some years ago but it is clearly visible on my neighbours’ properties, and in the trees on our street.

    1. Author

      Thanks Lesley, I’m further up Mt Vic from you and its everywhere up here too. And the hillsides are so steep around here it is going to be hard to control.

  6. There was Old Man’s Beard in the road reserve on our street. the Council weren’t interested but we had help from the Council nursey in replanting the area. We did the clearning, the Council took away all the unwanted weeds and plants with the co-operation of the nursey which provided the new natives.

    1. Author

      Well done Alison for getting it cleaned up and good to hear the council was supportive with removing cleared weeds and providing natives.

  7. Please dont call it Old Mans Beard. I’m an old man. I have a beard. It looks absolutely nothing like this blog weed. It is in the nature of beards that they keep growing back…cutting them off at the root has only a temporary effect, that’s why we invented electric shavers. I lived in Hawaii for some time and they have a plant there that is also commonly known as old mans beard…it really looks like a very long beard…lives off air and humidity and requires no pruning or feeding…people drape it over anything such as their pipe and chain link road boundary fence…it eventually hangs to the ground and beautifies the ugly fence with silver grey drapes of fine thread. It doesn’t spread unless you want it to. https://steemitimages.com/640×0/https://cdn.steemitimages.com/DQmWiDX59NYUuubvaPSbTqKq5UFAcdAecNHwbAXZDunBhfs/image.png

    1. Author

      Good point Phil – funnily enough it was known as ‘traveller’s joy’ in New Zealand until its weediness was discovered and it was changed to old man’s beard ‘to remove any
      positive connotations in its public perception.’ Traveller’s curse might have been a better option.

  8. There is old man’s beard (as well as a number of other pest plants) establishing and seeding in the WCC planting along Waterloo Quay. This is WCC roadside planting – so WCC is solely responsible for these areas. Was rather disappointed to see it there.

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