When Mary left us here below
The Virgin’s Bower began to blow
Old English couplet
Clematis and roses are the mainstay of my .garden, and they seem to have an affinity for each other, climbing happily together up the same tree or trellis. The gentle twining habit of the large flowered clematis does no harm to the host and is easy to disentangle at the end of the season. Some gardeners plant a clematis whenever they plant a tree, thus ensuring shade for the roots and a climbing frame for the vine.
I’ve enjoyed the genus Clematis since my childhood years in Britain, where I came to know that country’s only native species, C. vitalba, which we knew as old man’s beard from the masses of white, hairy seedheads covering the vines. The common name of Virgin’s bower was thought to be given to this species in honor of the Virgin Mary, since it flowers at the time of the Feast of the Assumption in August. It was used by Edward Bach, an English homeopathic physician in the 1920s who was known for his Bach Flower Remedies. He tried to identify cures for psychological states that depleted the immune system and recommended a tincture of C. vitalba to those who were “not rooted in the present and tended to dream.” Today, this same species is well-rooted in parts of the Pacific Northwest and has been designated a noxious weed there. Fortunately most species and hybrids are better behaved.
I have a goodly number of clematis now but fewer than the eighty-five kinds that reputedly bloom at Sissinghurst, and far short of the 500 in Brewster Rogerson’s collection near Portland (see Pacific Horticulture, July ’03). I concentrate here on some of the ones that have succeeded in my own garden.
The most spectacular, by far, is Clematis montana ‘Grandiflora’, which flowers in May. One plant covers a fifty-foot long fence, climbing up any tree it may find en route. The solid mass of white flowers is like a decorative canopy along the border of the garden. At one time, I had a similarly rambunctious C. montana ‘Pink Perfection’ growing along the deck, but I had reluctantly to move it before it devoured the entire deck. Unlike most clematis, members of the Montana group are scented: ‘Grandiflora’ like almonds and ‘Pink Perfection’, vanilla.
I have a weakness for white flowers, which add a luminous quality to my garden, especially under our fog and mist along the Northern California coast. Clematis ‘Marie Boisselot’ is one of the best. Its large, flat, overlapping sepals have a distinct shine to them; the vines are vigorous, and they flower freely from June to September. Another good white is C. ‘Henryi’, with smaller flowers and darker anthers. It blooms from May to September.
Winding through a mugho pine (Pinus mugo) is Clematis ‘Comtesse de Bouchaud’. A delicate mauve-pink, it has a long and prolific flowering season. A few years ago, however, it developed a yellowing of the leaves. Flowering continued to be abundant, and I began to call it my variegated clematis. Eventually, the leaves became disfigured, and I dug the vine out. Digging a clematis is no easy task: the tough roots grow like a mass of spaghetti and are determined to live. Sure enough, the vine returned from a piece of root in the following year—yellow leaves and all. I dug it out a second time, and last year it returned again, this time without the yellow leaves; it even flowered again. I am now nurturing it and hoping for the best.
My coastal garden is subject to high winds, and I needed a tough clematis to withstand them; Clematis ‘Jackmanii’ fit the bill. It grows on a trellis near the front door, along with the climbing miniature rose ‘Jeanne Lajoie’. The combination of deep purple clematis and pale pink rose is outstanding. In general, I find that clematis vines like a companion, either a shrub or small tree to climb on or a rose to share the support. Clematis and roses seem to be a natural duo.
Later in the year comes the small, yellow, bell-like flowers of Clematis tangutica, originally from Russia. I find it hard to decide which are the more beautiful: the flowers or the seedheads. The seedheads really do look like heads of silky hair. Another yellow species is C. orientalis, from Tibet; it has similarly shaped flowers but of a deeper yellow. None of the large-flowered cultivars yet produced are a true yellow. I tried C. ‘Wada’s Primrose’, but, despite its name, it is more cream than yellow.
Even later in the year comes Clematis ‘Duchess of Albany’ with pink, tulip-shaped flowers nodding in a mass of greenery. It is a smothering plant that resists climbing in a tidy fashion but spreads in all directions on the tepee-like structure I’ve given it. It would probably do better clambering through a sizable shrub. (It has come to me rather late that a special kind of support is needed for each
In my part of the world, we tend to believe that “part shade” translates into “full sun,” since we have so much fog, and summer temperatures rarely exceed the low 70s. However, full sun did not work in my garden for Clematis ‘Nelly Moser’; her pale pink sepals, with deep pink bars, faded to a dull grayish pink. She is now much happier—and far more appealing—in the shade.
Clematis ‘Mrs. N. Thompson’ climbs into a portion of C. montana ‘Grandiflora’ and presents her scarlet-barred, deep purplish sepals just as the latter is finishing—a bold contrast to the diminishing white flowers—and then repeats in August.
The one drawback to clematis in my garden is the crisping and browning of the leaves by late summer. This is likely due to the salt-laden coastal winds, but I may also not be generous enough with irrigation water during our dry summer months. This is a particular problem for Clematis armandii, which is grown for its evergreen leaves and winter flowers. Perhaps mine is not sufficiently sheltered from the winds. The brownish leaves certainly detract from the slightly scented, small white flowers that herald the spring bulbs soon to come.
I love all clematis, but there is no denying that the large-flowered hybrids are the most frustrating of plants. Stems on the dormant plants appear completely dead, and they break easily when I am trying to train them. The new shoots are apparently irresistible to slugs, so I never cut mine completely to the ground but trim them a foot or so above the soil line. Some plants take two or three years to get started after planting, but all is forgiven as they eventually burst into a mass of bloom. Clematis ‘Guernsey Cream’ flowers at ground level and at the top of its eight-foot stems—with nothing in between. I have just moved it to see if it will do better elsewhere. One plant of C. ‘Jackmanii’ climbs up to the deck with typical flowers but then presents an extravagant surge of blossoms flat on the deck.
Clematis can be unpredictable: breathtaking and abundant flowers one year; sulking the next. I have probably moved more clematis than any other plant in my garden in an on-going attempt to find the right spot to make each happy.
Pruning, to my mind, is bewildering. If the plants kept to the “rules,” pruning would be easy, but they don’t. In my part of the world, the plants seem as perplexed as the people about what season it is and when they should be flowering. In theory, vines that flower on old wood should not be pruned until after they have flowered. Plants that bloom on current year’s wood should have the previous year’s wood cut back to encourage new growth. This sounds simple, but some plants seem to have both habits, particularly in our climate. Only by observing each individual plant is it possible to know what to do—and when.
Nevertheless, clematis are elegant plants. The colors are wonderful: soft and delicate, or rich and deep, but never gaudy. She is rightfully called the “queen of climbers.” Perhaps it is respect for her royal presence that leads us to call her by her proper (Latin) name instead of her common name of Virgin’s bower.