Clematis virginiana in bloom in Kit’s garden

Clematis virginiana in bloom in Kit’s garden.

For a long time I stayed away from vines in the garden. Living in the land of kudzu and English ivy, I assumed vines were meant to overtake the world. My attitude changed when I began to grow sustainable roses because it turned out that roses and clematises have a natural affinity to one another.

However, I knew little about clematises when I decided to dip my toe into this mysterious world. There seemed to be a bewildering array of clematises, all belonging to different pruning groups, thereby making my head spin. And then I saw pictures of the gaudy C. terniflora (aka C. paniculata and Sweet Autumn clematis)—and I knew I had to have it.

Fortunately I did my homework first. This incredibly beautiful, showy, fragrant, Japanese import is terribly seedy and invasive—and “seedy” and “invasive” have no room in my garden. I then chanced upon our native version, C. virginiana, which is a tamed version of the villainous C. terniflora.

Because it can grow to a height of twenty-two feet, C. virginiana is too big to pair with roses. Instead I paired it with a largish camellia—and both this camellia that is in its summer dormancy and the clematis appear to be happy. For those of you squeamish about letting vines grow on large shrubs or small trees, clematis vines do not choke the life out of its support.

When I first started investigating the world of clematises, I discovered that there were large-flowered clematises and small-flowered ones. I chose the small-flowered ones for one reason and one reason only: the dreaded clematis wilt that can seemingly overtake a clematis overnight appears to be far more prevalent in the large-flowered varieties — and if I were going to explore the world of clematises, it was going to be without clematis wilt.

Clematises pair well with roses because they require the same mothering that roses need: that is, they thrive on regular water, regular fertilization, and pruning. Clematises also come in all sizes so there are many that will not reach the great heights of C. virginiana and C. terniflora. A six-foot clematis, such as C. ‘Princess Diana’, looks fabulous intertwined with a large hybrid tea rose.

To my eye, clematises need something to climb on, whether it’s a camellia, rose, or a fence. Left to itself, a clematis will sprawl in a disorderly fashion on the ground, making a mess. It also helps to train the clematis: I was a bit late in training C. virginiana, with the result that half resides on the camellia while the other half sprawls on the ground. When I cut her back at the end of the growing season, I will make a mental note that this clematis needs early good training.

As for pruning, it’s really quite simple. Early spring bloomers just get thinned out as they bloom on old wood. Late spring bloomers bloom on both old and new wood so need a late winter pruning. Those like ‘Princess Diana’ and C. virginiana bloom in the summer on new wood and are cut to the ground in early spring.

So why, you might ask, am I filling you with all this knowledge of clematises now, rather than waiting for the spring? Winter is the time to order clematises—chances are that if you wait until spring the cultivars you want will be gone. It’s can be hard to find a particular cultivar you’re pining for.

An excellent source for information and a wide choice of clematises can be found at www.brushwood.com. Have fun exploring the wonderful world of clematises—just avoid the toxic beauty of C. terniflora.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com.

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