Clematis in all its glory

H.F. Young flowers regularly every year despite the difficult dry conditions created by a neighbours leylandii hedge

Rather like old friends our clematis return each year and delight us. They have increased in number and size over the years and these long-lived plants quietly creep around the trees and shrubs and emerge reliably each year. We love collecting new varieties and luckily many have enjoyed the conditions in our garden.

It is a pure joy to suddenly come across that first bloom of the year from a clematis that has been quietly surviving over the winter. The large buds develop and then, there it is, the first perfect flower.

'Niobe' climbing amongst a white Philadephus
‘Niobe’ climbing amongst a white Philadephus

For other smaller flower varieties like C. montana it is the spectacular show provided by a large cloak of thousands of flowers in delicate pink that sit wonderfully amongst the white lilac tree and our purple leaved Prunus padus. You don’t seem to notice how far it has spread until it blooms. There is a danger that a strong clematis might well overwhelm a smaller tree but there is no doubt the effect is dramatic.

Clematis montana climbing amongst the red foliage of Prunus padus
Clematis montana climbing amongst the red foliage of Prunus padus

Distribution in nature

Britain has only one native species of clematis (C. vitalba (Old Man’s Beard)) but there are over 250 species¹ distributed mainly in tropical or temperate regions. Most are natives of the northern hemisphere with several native to Europe. As well as the very familiar large flowered hybrids that grace the garden centres there are a number of smaller flowered species that make highly desirable garden plants.

Clematis alpina - one of the earliest clematis in the garden flowering here in in April
Clematis alpina – one of the earliest clematis in the garden flowering here in in April

A member of the Ranunculaceae (the buttercup family), clematis come in a wide range of blue mauves to purples but also white through pink to shades of red, burgundy and also yellow. The petals of Clematis have been replaced by colourful sepals. Typically these are in fours or eight but some (eg. Clematis ‘Niobe’) have six. Through a careful choice of cultivars and species you can have clematis flowering in your garden from spring through to autumn.

Clematis are not commonly grown for their scent but we would not be without our C. x aromatica which climbs over our rope rose arches and provides a lovely waft of ‘vanilla’ scent across the garden in the evening. A strategically placed seat and a glass of wine are all you need to enjoy the experience to the full.

Clematis 'Daniel Daronda'
Clematis ‘Daniel Daronda’

Clematis in the garden

One of the essential benefits of clematis is that they exploit the vertical dimension of the garden. They climb over their hosts by using their leaf stems. Given an appropriate support, they can rapidly cover a trellis or other structural feature. Variety ‘Nelly Moser’ with its large pink flowers is also very comfortable growing against a north facing wall.

Clematis 'Nelly Moser'
Clematis ‘Nelly Moser’

Most of the clematis we have growing here at Waverley are deciduous however there is one, C. armandii, which is evergreen. This is a tough old plant and wants to survive. Its supporting tree was felled over ten years ago but even after a ruthless prune it still flowers every year and clambers through the remaining lower shrubs.

Evergreen Clematis armandii
Evergreen Clematis armandii

The most successful of our clematis are growing amongst other mature trees or shrubs and they climb their way up to the light. They don’t seem to mind the competition and many books indicate that the roots need to be kept shaded and cool. Where we have clematis growing up supports in more formal flower beds we make sure they are planted amongst herbaceous perennials to ensure that the root area and base of the plant is kept in the shade during the summer months.

The general advice is to plant pot grown clematis deep² so that if the plant is damaged or contracts wilt it will regrow new shoots again from under the surface. When preparing the planting hole for a new clematis you should include plenty of organic matter.

Clematis montana 'Tetrarose'
Clematis montana ‘Tetrarose’

There is a lot written about pruning clematis. For us the simple and easy to remember phrase “if it flowers before June do not prune” works well for us.

Cutting and conditioning

Clematis can make a wonderful addition to any floral design. Its trailing habit adds something not offered by many flowering plants suitable for cutting. Growing a stem that trails effectively does require some forward thinking otherwise you end up with a tangled mess to unravel. Some of our clematis grow across a rope arch and individual strands are allowed (encouraged) to hang down naturally in preparation for cutting.

As with most flowers they are best cut in the cool of the early morning and placed into cool water to condition for at least 24 hours. To get the best vase life cut into older wood.

The stems last well and can be effectively added to long table arrangements to trail down the front of a top table. We probably use the smaller C. montana more often for this kind of arrangement.

Trails of clematis montana
Arrangement with trails of clematis montana and asparagus fern

There is no doubt that Clematis add something very special and different to the garden. Many look delicate but they are really very tough and resilient plants if you give them conditions that they can thrive in. Choosing your varieties carefully can provide on-going interest throughout late spring and summer and into autumn.

Clematis 'Jersey Cream' creeping amongst a trellis of dark ivy leaves.
Clematis ‘Jersey Cream’ creeping amongst a trellis of dark ivy leaves.

Further reading

¹ “A comprehensive guide to Clematis” by Barry Fretwell (ISBN 0 00 414017 6)

² “Growing Clematis” by Nicholas Hall, Jane Newdick and Neil Sutherland (ISBN 1-85833-163-3)

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