Wednesday, June 8, 2011


            First of all, say CLEM-uh-tiss, not cluh-MATT-iss. Mispronunciation of Clematis ranks up there with POM-pus grass in irritating my ear. (It’s PAM-pus, y’all, after the Argentinean grasslands, not some blowhard of your acquaintance.) Now that’s sorted, I’ll tell my tale of woe.
When this star-crossed relationship began, the sum-total of my knowledge of the genus extended only to the large-flowered hybrids. In rapid succession, I planted and killed Henryii,’ ‘Niobe,’ ‘Hagley Hybrid,’ ‘Ville de Lyon,’ ‘Nellie Moser,’ ‘Étoile de Violette’ and ‘Comtesse de Bouchard.’

            Dismayed and discouraged yet not defeated, I boldly ventured into the wonderful world of species clematis, where I’ve enjoyed a few spectacular triumphs (relatively speaking, of course), the usual failures, and one or two draws. In rough order of appearance in my garden, they are:

      ·    C. x jackmanii superba (Jackman’s clematis) This astoundingly hard-to-kill large-flowered survivor throws out a few four-petalled, blue-violet blossoms annually, just to keep me on the hook. As I regularly forget to prune it down to three or four leaf buds in early spring, it gets leggier by the year. This spring it bloomed up in the adjacent live oak, as you can see from the picture. At least it flowered. I take my victories where I find them.

     ·   C. paniculata. Or C. terniflora. Or C. maximowicziana. Unsurprisingly, taxonomists seem at odds over this. (Autumn clematis) An unqualified success. Masses of small, white, fragrant blossoms smother my New Dawn’ rose—with which it is interplanted—in mid- to late August for two to three weeks. The foliage mostly dies back after the first hard frost, leaving a brown and crunchy mess for me to pull out from among the thorns of the rose, but I don’t care: as Dr. Frankenstein famously observed, “It’s [still] alive!”

·         C. armandii (Spring clematis) Large, pure-white, five-petalled flowers appear in April among the leathery, dark green, lanceolate and (allegedly) evergreen foliage. The first of three attempts teased me by blooming two consecutive springs before going crunchy in July of its sophomore year. The second fell victim to squirrels, who, in an unexplained fit of pique, gnawed the poor thing down to a stub in its pot before I ever managed to get it into the ground. The third never recovered from the crunchy blight it suffered during its first summer. This species is becoming more popular in the trade, so I haven’t given up on it entirely. Yet.

      ·  C. x durandii (Blue clematis) Wayside Gardens catalog promised this gorgeously dark-blue flowered scandent little lovely was perfect for my back yard, given a little shade. Wrong. I tried two years in a row: death in both cases was annoyingly swift.

The postcard from the
 Shanagarry Cookery School
·    C. montana (Anemone or mountain clematis) Tim and I swooned at the sight of great pink and white swags of flowers festooning the buildings of the Shanagarry Cookery School in Ballymaloe, Ireland, in May of 2000. Naturally, I had to have one, despite our distinctly non-Irish climate. I admit to having reservations about how something with montana (“mountain”) in its name would do on the coast: but, hey—you never know until you try. I finally found a source (in central Tennessee, which should have told me something) and ordered two pink-blooming C. montana Elizabeth. Neither flowered nor survived their second coastal summer. This marks the only time I haven’t felt completely flummoxed by SCD (Sudden Clematis Death, a disease I just made up).

     ·  C. ‘Alionushka’ (Alionushka clematis) According to Hillier’s Manual (see Good Reads at right), she produces rosy pink flared, bell-shaped flowers from mid-spring to fall. I got this one from Tony Avent’s Plant Delights Nursery at one of the fall open houses, and had the highest of hopes. Which were, of course, completely dashed within nine months.

·    C. montevidensis and C. versicolor   Mail-ordered from Woodlanders on the basis of extremely sketchy catalog descriptions, these two species apparently exist nowhere else; at least I’ve not found any corroborating reference to either in my library. From the specific epithets, I have deduced that “versicolor” may refer to variably hued…something; leaves? flowers? stems? The cryptic catalog entry remarked only that it produces lavender to purple flowers, has grey-green foliage and is native to the south-central U.S. It survives as a puny little thing, declining to flower yet clinging to life. “Montevidensis” is harder to figure. Lantana montevidensis has a trailing habit; could this clematis be scandent? Insofar as my garden is concerned, it’s moot: I’ve forgotten where I planted it, and am pretty sure it’s dead now. There’s also the possibility that both are hybrids of C. integrifolia and some other C. that go by other names in other places, just to muddy the taxonomic waters even further. So if anybody knows anything about either of these two, get in touch at your earliest convenience, okay?

C. montevidensis
a.k.a. Old Man's Beard,
according to the Internet

C. versicolor


     ·  C. ‘Evipo031’ and ‘Evipo033’ (Festoon hybrids) ‘Evipo031’ goes by the name “Bonanza.” You can call ‘Evipo033’ “Avant Garde.”  Both have tiny, finely dissected leaves. The tags say both are “…free-flowering mid-summer to fall,” Bonanza’s offerings allegedly mauve-blue, Avant Garde’s reddish with pink stamens. After three years, I spied a couple of blue blooms in June, but that was it. I figured Avant Garde gave up the avant-ghost early on—I planted them together and can’t really tell who’s who from the foliage. Then in May of 2008, a single reddish bloom appeared on all that entwined foliage, an event never to be repeated. So much for “Avant Garde.” “Bonanza” still throws a few flowers in May most seasons. Non-stop bloom, phooey. Non-start bloom is more like it. 

·  C. texensis x reticulata (Leather flower or Texas clematis) Another Woodlanders specimen, my research leads me to believe it may actually be C. pitcheri. (See the second listing down from here.) Straight species texensis is supposed to have smooth, blue-green leaves and reddish-orange (maybe this color made some imaginative soul think of leather?) to scarlet bell-shaped flowers mid-summer to fall. I can’t say from personal experience. Mine half-heartedly climbs two or three feet up its support each spring, but has yet to bloom.

      ·  C. cirrhosa (Winter clematis) A Plant Delights acquisition from 2006’s fall Open House, this three-inch-potted baby remained evergreen and even reached out a tentative tendril toward the welcoming chicken wire, raising my hopes, well into June of the following year. When it went all brown and crunchy, I crossed all my fingers and toes that it might recover from this serious-looking sulk. No dice. From the specific epithet, you’d expect the flowers to be bile yellow, but Hillier says they’re cup-shaped and cream-colored with silky seedheads following the bloom. I’ll just have to take his word for it.

      ·  C. pitcheri (Pitcher’s leather flower) Named for its discoverer, Zina Pitcher. Purple, bell-shaped, pendant blooms are alleged from mid-spring to September. I’ll believe it when I see it. I planted this baby as soon as I got her home from Plant Delights in the fall of 2007, and immediately became a bit worried: the plant growing in her spot mostly resembled a thriving cudweed. I chewed my fingernails all winter. In early March 2008, the distinctive trifoliate leaf of Clematis poked up through what was, in fact, a giant cudweed. Apparently the two were friends, so I prudently left both alone. The latter inexplicably died that summer, but Miss Zina’s clematis clings to life. Maybe it’ll even flower in a decade or two.

·    C. stans x heracleifolia, a bush variety, joined my collection of potential victims in 2008. Planted near the C. pitcheri, it did just fine. Unfortunately, it is the ugliest clematis in foliage and flower I’ve ever slapped eyes on. Even the Internet wouldn't publish a picture of it. After spending two seasons in denial of and disbelief at its weed-like habit and undistinguished blooms, I yanked it out and composted it.

Now I’m eying a $60.00 C. x cartwrightii at my favorite Wilmington garden center (photos of which have also eluded the World Wide Web). Will she or won’t she?  

Well, that’s my tale of woe. To date. Plant Delight’s spring catalog lists a couple more species for me to lose my heart to. I’ve got my hi-liter out. I know there’s a lovely clematis species or cultivar out there somewhere—besides C. paniculata/terniflora/maximowicziana and the Jackman hybridthat will enjoy living and perhaps even flowering in my garden. If there’s a lesson to take away from this sad story, it’s to never give up. The plant world is vast, frontiers stretching far in all directions, new discoveries made every day. Don’t let a few (dozen) failures get you down. Be of good heart.

            Thanks for dropping by.

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