Clematis- Soaring Beauty

My passion for collecting clematis began when a fellow gardener and friend gave me An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Clematis by Mary Toomy and Everett Leeds (Timber Press, 2001). I suspect my friend knew the fire she was igniting. I had no idea how extensive the genus was with over 550 recorded clematis species and cultivars. It was three years ago when I received the encyclopedia and began my own small collection of clematis. I now have a selection of 25 unusual varieties planted all over my garden, and though they were unspectacular the first couple of summers, they are now truly established, and it has been well worth the wait.

The name clematis comes from the Greek word klema, meaning “vine branch.” As early as 1548, William Turner referred to the species Clematis vitalba, described as “the old man’s beard” presumably because of its white fluffy autumn seed heads, which would have been growing wild into bushes and hedgerows throughout the English countryside. Other descriptive names that were used to describe this enticing vine were beggar’s plant, devil’s guts, gypsy’s bacca, and traveller’s joy.

Clematis started appearing in gardens when Clematis viticella from southeastern Europe was introduced into Britain in 1569 followed by C. integrifolia, C. cirrhosa, C. flammula and C. recta. All of these species remain in cultivation today. In 1726, Clematis crispa, the first of the American species, arrived in Britain, followed by C. viorna in 1730.  In 1830, gardeners in Philadelphia and Boston imported new species from England which included C. viticella and C. vitalba.

Perhaps America’s most passionate collector of this genus was Joel E. Spingarn, a university professor and civil rights leader who visited England in 1927 and discovered for himself the beauty of clematis. On returning to the United States, he quickly realized that the majority of clematis he had seen in England was unavailable here. Spingarn made it his mission to collect and import them all. In 1934 he had a collection of 250 in his garden in Troutbeck, NY.

I first attempted to grow clematis on the wall of my house and I had the good fortune of living in an area with mild winters and a long growing season. The 30-foot Clematis jackmanii covered our cottage in Scotland and had reached the middle of the roof by the third year. I was initially drawn to the large flowering varieties because they made a flashier statement in my young garden where not much was happening. Now that I am onto my second garden and it is a little more mature, I have begun collecting the smaller, more subtle varieties such as C. ‘Betty Corning.’ This nodding, bell-shaped, pale lilac-colored clematis is floriferous and this year my plant was in flower for over six weeks. ‘Betty Corning’ was discovered in a garden in Albany in 1933 by, not surprisingly Betty Corning, wife of Erastus Corning II, the one-time mayor of Albany. Hardy to zone 3, the flowers are 2 to 2.25 inches and the vine will reach a height of 8 to 10 feet.

I no longer grow clematis just on walls and figured out that there are multiple ways to grow this vine. When I laid out my garden in upstate New York I had my neighbor, who worked with metal, copy an iron obelisk that I admired in a gardening book. The free-standing structures stand at six feet above ground, with one foot buried in the soil. I had four made because I wanted to have a strong vertical element in the garden. Made with thin iron and painted black, the obelisks do not overpower the plants like some of the heavy wooden obelisks I have seen. Being six foot six, I am always bending down to look at 2-foot tall perennials, but with these structures I can look my clematis in the eye.

The first clematis I planted on my new iron structure was C. ‘Purpurea Plena Elegans’ — my favorite to date. Everything about is French! It is so well clad. Its petals resemble pantaloons more than petals and the deep wine red color is truly handsome. This clematis is thought to be from the 17th century. The rosettes are 1.75 to 2.25 inches across, and it is hardy to zone 3. It has been flowering for me for two months, and like a good wine seems to improve with age.

I got greedy a few years ago and ordered a dozen or so clematis, although I had no idea where I was going to find homes for them. Anxious to get them into the ground, I decided to plant several using the natural structure of shrubs and small trees. William Robinson, the 19th-century Irish gardener and journalist who was an important figure in defining the English cottage garden, wrote a small book on clematis in 1912; he preferred, like most of his plantings, for plants to look natural and preferred growing clematis they way they grow in the wild which is through shrubs and trees. Shrubs and trees are a perfect armature for vines, and the shrub rose and clematis make a perfect union. You might want to consider the flowering times of both plants, mature heights of each plant, color, and pruning required to make a good match.

Avoid planting clematis in formal hedges as most hedges require several trimmings throughout the summer. I have a wild, 20×12-foot high honeysuckle bush by my pond and I chose C. fargesioides ‘Paul Farges’ (a k a ‘summer snow’) to grow into the large shrub. Because the honeysuckle bush blooms in early summer and the small creamy white flowers of ‘Paul Farges’ appear in late July into August, when the honeysuckle has produced small red berries, they are a good pairing. This clematis reaches a height of 15 to 20 feet, is hardy to zone 3, and is extremely vigorous. It’s a rambler and I have not given it a second thought since I planted it.

Most clematis requires tying down when they first start climbing in the spring so they don’t snap in the wind. For something carefree and wild, ‘Paul Farges’ is your best bet. Besides growing it into a large shrub it would do well on a fence or running up a small tree. I also planted in 2005 C. ‘Huldine’ at the base of an alder tree located near my driveway. It’s an old tree and its branches are open to the sun. I completely forgot about it until this year when it surprised me by reaching a height of about 10 feet. It bloomed for about five weeks.

C. ‘Huldine’ has a special story. It was raised by Francisque Morel of Lyon, France, and given to William Robinson of Gravetye Manor in England. It was exhibited by Robinson’s head gardener and won the Royal Horticultural Society award of merit in 1933. The whitish flowers, 3 to 4 inches wide, are comprised of six no overlapping translucent tepals, each showing three pinkish mauve bars on their undersurface. The vine will reach a height of 10 to 14 feet, making it a perfect match for a small tree or pergola. It does best in full sun or partial shade and is hardy to zone 4.

I made a mistake when I planted C. ‘Polish Spirit’ too near the wall of an outbuilding. All clematis should be planted 12 to 18 inches away from the base of buildings because of the drip line. Rain seldom reaches the base of the wall and a site like this is too dry, especially in late summer. Because of this mistake the flowers on my plant have finished early and the majority of leaves have turned brown.

Don’t confuse the symptom of browning leaves with clematis wilt. One summer when C. montana was in full bloom, I discovered that the 10-foot plant in my garden had collapsed like a dying opera diva. Clematis wilt is a fungal disease. The plant can be infected by its roots, stems or joints at or above the soil level. I cut the plant down to the ground and when it happened again the following year I removed the plant. I also removed and replaced two feet of soil with fresh topsoil. It’s important to remove all of the infected leaves because the disease can survive in dead plant material for many months. You should also disinfect any tools you have used. Clematis wilt seems to strike the larger flowering varieties; the smaller varieties rarely suffer from the disease. Removing the diseased plant and soil worked for me and the new clematis is happy and blooms vigorously way into August.

The best advice I received about growing clematis is that they should “have their feet in the shade and their heads in the sun.” Plant a perennial or small shrub in front of the vine to shade its roots.

There are too many groups of clematis to mention all of the different pruning requirements, but the basic rule of thumb when pruning is to wait until late spring once the plants kicks out new growth. If all the previous year’s growth is dead you can then cut the deadwood down to the new growth. Don’t prune if you see leaves emerging on the old growth. Only cut out the deadwood where no new growth is to be found. A friend who came to my garden wondered why his Clematis jackmanii never reached the height mine did. It turned out that he was cutting back all the previous year’s growth so his plant had to start from scratch each year.

Making a wooden trellis for clematis to climb on is a good idea; but, if in a hurry, you can use galvanized nails, wire or fishing line. Space your nails out in a grid pattern about 8 to 12 inches apart on your wall or fence, then tie the wire or fishing line both horizontally and vertically between the nails. This makes a strong support for the clematis. The benefit of the fishing line is you do not see it during the winter months when the plant dies back.

I planted C. ‘Guernsey Cream’ at the base of a dry stone wall where a German grape had died and I left the old grape vine as an armature for the clematis. ‘Guernsey Cream’ has now covered the strong grape wood and started blooming in early June before most clematis bloom; the young flowers have a tinge of green and are about 5 to 6 inches across. It will reach a height of 6 to 8 feet. Its parentage and year are unknown but was introduced in 1989 and was raised by Raymond Evison of Guernsey. My plant was covered from head to toe in flowers: a sight to behold. The creamy color looked terrific against the fieldstones.

I also planted C. ‘Ernest Markham’ at the base of the shrub Physocarpus o. ‘Diabolo’ (a k a ‘Ninebark’). I like the large magenta flowers that measure 4 to 6 inches in diameter weaving through the Ninebark’s bronzy-colored leaves. Its parentage is unknown and was introduced and raised by Ernest Markham, head gardener at Gravetye Manor in England. It was named by Rowland Jackman in 1937 after Markham’s death. It is hardy to zone 4.

I have several of the large blue flowering varieties including C. ‘Elsa Spath,’ C. ‘Polish Spirit,’ C. ‘Ramona,’ and C. jackmanii ‘Superba.’ As I plan the next phase of my clematis collection I want to grow more of the small bell-shaped and bird-shaped varieties. Several ground-spreading clematis stay quite small. Winter is a good time to research the varieties you will want to plant and to plan the structures you will grow your clematis on. To locate some of the more interesting varieties you must order from specialty nurseries. Unfortunately, the best nursery for clematis, Chalk Hill Clematis Farm (over 300 varieties) in California, closed this year, but I have discovered new nurseries that also specialize in unusual varieties.

How to pronounce clematis is something that people cannot seem to agree on. I have heard it pronounced as cle-MA-tis, clem-A-tis, cle-MATT-is. But whichever way you choose, the person you’re talking with probably has a different way of saying it. Photos of Clematis.

To purchase unusual varieties, the author suggests:

Silverstar Vinery Clematis, www.silverstarvinery.com

Brushwood Nursery, www.gardenvines.com

Completely Clematis Garden Nursery, www.clematisnursery.com

Garden Crossings, www.gardencrossings.com

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