Looking back, I discover that I have never written a ‘Plant of the Month’ piece about clematis, which is very odd, given that they are my favourite plants and by far my worst botanical extravagance. At the present count, I have twenty-two in my garden (which is very small, in spite of the way I go on about it) and three of them are currently flowering their heads off.
There is only one native British (and European) clematis: C. vitalba, known in the vernacular as ‘old man’s beard’, or ‘traveller’s joy’, the latter name having been given to it by none other than John Gerard; ‘old man’s beard’ speaks for itself.
Many clematis varieties produce wonderful seedheads; and I suppose that at this point I should mention that clematis don’t have petals – strictly speaking, the decorative bits of the flower are sepals. (Look under the ‘petals’ and you will see that they arise straight from the stem, unlike flowers such as the rose, where the sepals first encase the bud and then support the opening petals.)
Most of our garden clematis (of which there are about three hundred species and heavens knows how many thousands of hybrids) originated in China and Japan. As well as the familiar climbing shrubs, both deciduous and evergreen, there are also herbaceous perennial species which lack the ability to cling but sprawl along the ground instead. It is a member of the Ranunculaceae (buttercup) family, which also includes hellebores, anemones, and the wondrous Japanese wood poppy, Glaucidium palmatum, the only plant in its genus – as far as is known, at any rate.
The name is Linnaean, and derives from the Greek κλῆμα, a shoot or twig, especially a vine tendril. (As for pronunciation, I say ‘Clem-atis’, you say ‘Cle-MAY-tis’, but we usually understand each other.)
The various clematis are all toxic to a greater or lesser extent, and I was disconcerted while reading up on the genus to learn (a) that I should use gloves for pruning (this warning comes forty years too late), but (b) that in the Veneto the growing tips of C. vitalba are used to flavour an omelette: I always thought that was pea shoots, but will look more attentively next time. The stems can be used to weave baskets, or to tie up sheaves of grain (mice don’t eat it it, apparently – possibly because it’s toxic???), and there is evidence from Switzerland that in the Stone Age it was used for ropes.
However, the consideration with clematis is not its utility but its beauty. The origin of today’s multifarious hybrids can be traced back to the travels of Robert Fortune, plant hunter and adventurer extraordinaire, who was apparently the first to bring live plants of C. lanuginosa (= down-covered, referring to the stems and sepals) back from China. (It was named by Lindley and Paxton, and depicted in vol. 3 of Paxton’s Flower Garden (1852),
and its potential was seized upon immediately by the George Jackmans (father and son), nurserymen of Woking, who in 1862 crossed this enormous-flowered, colourful plant with C. vitalba to produce C. jackmanii, still, after more than 150 years, one of the best-selling clematis worldwide.
Other clematis hybridised later by the family included C. ‘Mrs George Jackman’, ‘Barbara Jackman’, C. alpina ‘Pamela Jackman’, and C. texensis ‘Duchess of Albany’, the most popular of the small, tulip-flowered hybrids. The species C. texensis comes (unusually) from Texas, where it is known as the scarlet leather flower, from the relative toughness of its petals, but it was already being hybridised in France before the Jackman nursery took it up.
If you like mostly single, sometimes repeat-flowering large flowers, then the numerous jackmanii and later hybrids are probably for you. I have to confess that I much prefer the smaller flowers of C. alpina (I have a ‘Pamela Jackman’), the lovely C. ‘Winter Beauty’, C. ‘Petit Faucon’, and C. ‘Arabella’, the latter in the Integrifolia Group, which won’t climb without tying in, but produces masses of blooms.
I’m also very fond of a scented plant which I bought years ago in the gardens of Peckover House in Wisbech, which was labelled C. kamschatkensis.
I have not questioned the taxonomy from that day to this, but I have just looked it up, and there appears to be no such thing (however many variant spellings of kamschatkensis I try). Nonetheless, it grows vigorously (though the snails really love the earliest shoots) and provides masses of flowers every summer.
The earlier flowering C. armandii is another scented one, though I have the plain white version rather than the hybrid ‘Apple Blossom’, which seems to me to smell more strongly.
The only thing I have against this marvellous plant is that it grows like mad, and is very painful to keep in check, since in my youthful folly I planted it alongside Rosa ‘Wedding Day’, an equally vigorous and extremely thorny rambler, and the two are now inexorably intertwined.
Then, again for this time of year, there is a C. cirrhosa which I have had for ages. I’ve lost the label – it may be ‘Freckles’, but the petals are speckled darker than most of the genuine ‘Freckles’ I’ve seen.
I have only a few large-flowered varieties, including ‘Jeanne’s Pink’ and the Polish-bred ‘Niobe’. I don’t have a picture of my ‘Niobe’ in flower, and was astonished by the huge range of colours, from deep purple to bright red, in online photographs. (In my opinion, it is red with no hint of blue.)
I used to have two other Polish ones, ‘Blekitny Aniol’ (‘Blue Angel’) and ‘Warszawska Nike’ (‘Warsaw Victory’), both bred by the Jesuit priest Stefan Franczak, but sadly, neither thrived. More successful have been C. durandii (another one which doesn’t climb very well)
and C. viticella ‘Alba Luxurians’, with strange, partly green petals (intentionally, I think, though ‘green petal’ is a recognised disease of clematis???) which I bought about 3o years ago at the open-air market at Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire, and is still going strong. (Unlike the market, alas …)
The ones I really don’t like are the elaborate doubles, of the sort for which the Raymond Evison nursery in Guernsey is famous. I can manage C. florida ‘Sieboldii’ (one of the many introductions of physician and botanist Philipp Franz von Siebold), but I’m afraid flowers like ‘Crystal Fountain’ and ‘Josephine’ do nothing for me.
I also don’t terribly like two-tone petals, of which the historic exemplar has to be ‘Nelly Moser’, introduced in 1897.
But I do like the new ‘picotee’ varieties, where there is a subtle colouring around the edge of each petal.
Happily, there are enough of these endlessly fascinating plants to satisfy almost every taste: there is even a yellow(ish) one, C. koreana ‘Amber’, by which I am currently rather tempted …