This time of year, take a walk down any rural road in these parts and you’re likely to come across locals foraging for Clematis vitalba (just ‘vitalba’ to Italians). From solitary peasants in dirty overalls to gaggles of gloved, uniformly-dressed matrons, these are the same folks you’ll sometimes see toting grocery bags exploding with fresh porcini mushrooms or chestnuts in fall, baskiets brimming with blackberries in late summer and wild strawberries in May. They know their landscape, its every hill and stream, and how to best exploit its spontaneous wild treats. They tend to rise with the sun, and they’re not above poking about in damp, redolent earth. They’re sly, too, jealous of their lucky foraging spots and not exactly given to sharing secrets.
Fortunately for me, my mother-in-law, Teresa, is as in-the-know as any Tuscan peasant woman, and very much the type to share a good thing. From her I’ve learned how to spot vitalba and how to turn the delicate shoots into a meal, her favorite being a simple frittata. The key step though, necessary to—get this—remove toxins, is to boil the greens first. Vitalba contains alkaloids and saponins, and is a skin irritant to boot. Nothing a few well-beaten eggs and handful of grated Parmesan can’t fix.
This obstinate, invasive climber has a long history of uses and attendant anecdotes. In homeopathy it’s a Bach flower—for ‘dreamers and artists’ (whatever that means). Vitalba is an analgesic, used to alleviate a variety of aches and pains, from contusions to arthritis. The dried leaves are diuretic and depurative. I read that medieval beggars and mendicant friars would enlist vitalba’s venomous qualities to bring about sores on the skin, to achieve a more pitiable appearance before those potentially charitable souls whom they passed on the road. In English, Clematis vitalba has earned the quaint nickname ‘Old Man’s Beard’ on account of its white, pilose flower. And it really is edible, just don’t forget to boil it for a few minutes before adding it to your frittata. Seriously.