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Friday, May 31, 2013

Clematis: Queen of all vines



My clematis vines are starting to bloom and it reminded me of this oldie helium article. Only a matter of time before this one is nixed too. First person, you know!

I  introduced a friend to my newest acquisition.“This is the Comtesse de Bouchaud. Isn’t she lovely?” I said dreamily. We stared up at her. She is a whopping ten feet tall with large, clear pink blossoms. My queen Clematis.

“Beautiful!” my friend agreed eagerly. “How do you propagate that? I’d love a piece of it.”

I gasped and  simultaneously slapped my hand over her offending mouth while  swiftly dragging her far, far away from the Comtesse.

“Are you insane?” I hissed angrily. “Have you no idea how sensitive the Comtesse is? She’s a Clematis, for cripe’s sake!”

She stared at me aghast. “It’s just a plant.” she replied.


Just a plant? I think not! Clematis  is one of the most exquisite, most breath-taking, most sought-after and the most persnickety of all vining perennials, the Royalty of the vine world if you will. That’s not just me saying it. Just ask any experienced gardener and they’ll tell you what a time they had deciphering the peculiarities of the Clematis. Thankfully it took me only a few years and several tries to gain all the knowledge required to keep my Royal family of Clematis happy and prosperous. Like most royalty they just want to be spoiled. But unlike most royalty they are worth all the trouble, believe me.

All right so I exaggerate. The Clematis isn’t all that troublesome. It just seems it at first to the novice which I was when I first attempted to grow one. Of course, I did it the hard way. I stole some seeds off a vine at a garden center. I couldn’t help it. They were so intriguing, fascinating even. I’d never seen anything like it. The seed heads looked like a cross between a spider and a dandelion. It was way cool! The closest thing I could say the seed head of this particular Clematis looked like was something out of a Dr. Suess book, namely the seeds from the Truffula tree of which the Lorax had the last one.

What could I do but plant it without any clue as to its needs and hope to do as well as the Lorax? It grew into a pretty little vine with golden yellow lantern shaped flowers. It  entwined itself with the neighboring Honeysuckle. I didn’t know it then but its name was Tangutica. Alas, it didn’t make it through our extremely cold  winter. My first Clematis calamity.

That’s when I learned it had sensitive roots.  It needed an extra bit of root protection. Everyone who wants this vine needs to learn the Clematis mantra, head in sun, feet in shade.  All that means is the Clematis requires mostly full sun but needs to have the roots shaded to remain cool. Most folks consider this impossible to do but it’s quite easy really. Mulch helps achieve this without much fuss. I now use a good four inches of shredded bark mulch at the base of each vine and I leave it there all year long both for winter protection and for cooling in summer.



Mulch isn’t  the only way to maintain cool temperatures for the delicate roots. I’ve planted  ground covers like Ajuga, Sedum and even Japanese Iris and Daylilies around the base. The taller ground covers eliminate the view of the bare stalks of the vine where flowers rarely grow.  They look good together and the long grass-like leaves shade the ground well.

Other than those tiny particulars the Clematis is like any other perennial requiring rich ( organic matter tilled into the soil before planting ensures this), well-drained soil on the very slightly alkaline side. If you can get it between a pH of 7 to 7.5 you’ll do great. A light dusting of lime should take care of that if you know your soil is acidic, just don’t overdo it. These vines like water but do not drown them nor allow water to puddle around the base. They like to be fed regularly with a balanced 10-10-10 liquid fertilizer or simply add compost generously. Compost is the fixer of all evils, didn’t you know that?

Because Clematis is a vine and can become unruly it needs support to let it reach for the sun.   Some people allow them to climb up trees or intertwine with shrubs which is fine if you have a Clematis that requires little pruning. Otherwise you’ll have a mess to extract from your bush.  Others allow them to sprawl along the ground to form a ground cover. Either way is fine. Up to you. I and most gardeners provide sturdy arbors for them to grip with their leaf stems called petioles. These petioles wrap around anything they can reach (even the leaves of my daylily) but they can only grip things up to three quarters of an inch in diameter.

 I learned that the hard way too. The Comtesse only had a plastic lattice to climb. She did as well as she could but a stiff breeze knocked her down into a tangled mess one windy late spring day. I had to help her out by tying her to it and providing sting for her to grip. She’s quite happy now.

The Comtesse de Bouchaud is not the only Clematis I have lest you think otherwise. I have twenty or so varieties in a rainbow of colors. These fall into three distinct groups A, B and C. The groups allow you to know how each vine is to be pruned for optimal blooming. To ensure your Clematis blooms profusely knowing where they fall within these groups is essential.  Prune the wrong way and your baby may need a couple of seasons to recover.

Now, I’m not one of those gardeners that likes to prune so I never bothered. Then one winter the neighborhood rabbits had a field day in my yard devouring everything they could get at and the Comtesse was nipped right down to the ground. I screamed bloody murder when I saw this but I really didn’t have anything to worry about.

The Comtesse is in group C as are other very popular varieties like  Durandii (indigo blue),  Jackmanii (deep purple),  Sweet Autumn (creamy white), and Ville de Lyon (pinkish red). All these should be pruned down almost to the ground. You will know the Clematis in this group by the fact that it mostly dies to the ground every winter or if it doesn’t completely die back the remaining branches only flowers at the very top. I find this group to be the most forgiving and the one most likely to give you a second chance to redeem yourself. The Clematis doesn’t like to be handled by incompetents.



The Clematis of the B group include the very popular grandifloras ( that just means they have really big flowers 6 to 8 inches across. WOW!)  Nelly Moser (a bi-color, bright pink with a darker pink stripe down the center), Henryi ( bright white), the double flowered Multi Blue (deep blue with the center tepals tipped in white), Bee’s Jubilee (magenta with red stripes down the center) and Ruby Glow (deep red). These bloom on old wood which just means last years branches. They also rebloom on new wood though these flowers tend to be a tad smaller but gives you a longer bloom time. Always a good thing when you like flowers.

To prune these just trim the tips and any damaged branches. If the vine seems to be too full you could also prune away crossing branches to thin it out. In general this one takes care of itself. It only needs you to keep it looking tidy. These are the best for those that like to grow Clematis intertwined with roses due to their similar pruning requirements. If however you like them on their own do make certain your Clematis has a tall enough structure or it’ll flop over when it has nowhere else to go. The trellis should have cross pieces no further apart than 6 inches to ensure it grabs something and keeps going up.

Another of my early mistakes, which made the Clematis fall into my face as I walked under the arbor. It had nothing to grab onto, you see. Now I have fishing line with tiny knots (fishing line tends to be slippery) at six inch intervals going up the large-spaced arbor to help them along. Now I can walk under without getting smacked in the face.

The last group, which should have been the first being it’s called the A group, is the Clematis that usually blooms in early spring and has little if any dieback in winter. This need only be trimmed to keep it looking its best. Cut off tips or dead branches but never cut the main stems unless it is over crowded and appears overgrown. In this group you will find Armandii (fragrant  four-petaled creamy white flowers), Superba (dark pink) and Tetrarose (pale pink). Most of these varieties have blossoms about 2 inches in diameter but they bloom so profusely and often have such  a sweet fragrance you’ll see size doesn’t much matter.

Now that I have armed you with knowledge there no longer is any excuse for you not to try your hand at the marvelous, the amazing, the fantastic world of the Clematis, Queen of all vines.  Enjoy!


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