The beauty of Clematis is evident no matter what name it is called – traveller’s joy, old man’s beard, leather flower, vase vine or virgin’s bower.
The large, exquisite blooms of the Jackmanii type of clematis and similar types are really spectacular in the summer. With a little care, this durable and dependable, large flowering clematis can be a show-stopper in the garden.
Clematis, as a group, do have a lot of diversity, gardeners just have to look beyond the large flowering Jackmanii types. There are clematis with flowers that are tiny bells or fragrant puffs of white petals that seem to float in the air. A wide range of flower types and blooming times give gardeners many options to enjoy this (mostly) climbing plant.
The one major hindrance for gardeners is the mystery of when and how much to prune. Pruning at the wrong time can sacrifice that season’s blooms, or pruning too little could deposit all the blooms at the far reaches of the stems. The secret to pruning clematis correctly is to identify where the flowers are supposed to be blooming. With this information, clematis can be grouped according to whether the flowers are formed on the last year’s wood or on the current season’s stems. Timing, in addition to the type and amount of shoots to remove, will be determined by where the flowers are formed. If clematis are pruned at the wrong time or pruned haphazardly without consideration to timing, then the current season’s blooms or the next season’s blooms are in jeopardy.
Clematis can be placed into three pruning groups. Group 1 includes those that bloom in the late spring or early summer and that flower on the previous season’s mature wood (last years stems). This is the smallest and least known of the three groups. Clematis that fall into this category are mostly Clematis alpina, Clematis montana, Clematis macropetala and their cultivars. Typically the blooms from clematis in this group are smaller, single and either bell-shaped or saucer-shaped. It is important to prune group 1 clematis after they have flowered (in early summer). This also includes carefully removing any dead or damaged stems. If necessary, shorten the healthy stems just enough to keep the plant contained where you want it. Do not prune this group late in the season or else the blooms for the next year will be removed.
Group 2 includes the early-summer, large-flowered cultivars that bloom on new shoots growing from the previous year’s growth. These clematis also bloom again toward the end of summer as the current year’s shoots mature. Clematis in this group hold their blooms upright, are mostly saucer-shaped and can be single, semi-double or fully double. This group is the biggest and contains many of the most popular and well-known clematis. The large-flowered types are usually the least vigorous clematis. Prune this group in early spring just before new growth starts. Remove dead and damaged stems and prune back all remaining stems to healthy buds. This minor pruning creates a framework for the blooming shoots.
Group 3 is a very diverse group of clematis that all bloom on current year’s shoots during the summer and into the autumn. This includes the late-blooming, large-flowered cultivars which have flowers that are mostly outward facing, saucer-shaped and can be single, semi-double or fully double. Group 3 also has late-flowering species, herbaceous species and small flowering cultivars. The small flowering cultivars could be single or double, be saucer-shaped, star-shaped, bell-shaped, tulip-shaped or tubular. Group 3 clematis can be pruned the most severely of all the groups since they bloom on the current season’s growth. Prune this group down to 30 cm from the ground in the early spring before growth starts if you need to control the ultimate height of climbing plants.
Clematis grow best when their feet are cool and mulched or in the shade and their heads are in the sun. To accomplish this, mulch or plant a shorter perennial at the base of the clematis to shade its roots. Clematis have a soil preference that is neutral or slightly alkaline and should be well-drained and rich. Never let clematis dry out.
Clematis wilt is a serious problem that has devastating results. Young members of group 3 (the late-blooming large-flowered types) seem to be more susceptible to this problem than other groups. Clematis wilt is a broad term to describe plants (or portions thereof) that wilt when the soil is moist. To reduce the chances of clematis wilt, plant climbing types with the top of the root ball 8 cm below the soil surface. This encourages the plant to produce strong shoots below the soil surface. If a plant suddenly wilts for no visible reason, prune it at the base and dispose of the wilted stems. In some cases, the plant will send up a new healthy shoot.
There are pleasant surprises when growing some clematis. The doubles will often bloom first as doubles and then later in the summer as singles. They could even change their flower colour slightly for the single blooms. This is like having two different plants growing in the same location. An interesting situation arises if a severe winter kills the top growth of double clematis. They will send up shoots from the base and only have single blooms that year. The re-blooming members of Group 2 also have slightly different flowers as the season progresses. The later flush of blooms could be smaller or single and differ in colour from the first blooms. Many clematis have the added bonus of having decorative, fluffy, round seed heads. Clematis tangutica, a yellow, bell-shaped flowering plant, is one of the best for this showy feature.
Clematis have unfortunately been stereotyped into one narrow use in the garden. They have traditionally been grown up a trellis against a house. There’s even been debates about whether clematis look better growing up a trellis or arbour instead of on a wall. The time has come to consider the many other uses for clematis. Use them woven through a chain link fence. They can also be used as a vine groundcover over an eyesore that should be hidden. Be more daring and grow clematis up the base of a tree or through shrubs. They look great climbing up through an old shrub rose.
There’s another mystery to solve. Should gardeners say kle-matis or klem-ah-tis? The latter would be usually better received among a group of British horticulturists. The former is perfectly fine when complimenting your neighbour over the back fence. The choice is yours and it depends on your audience. The name is from the Greek word “clema” which means tendril and was used for several climbing plants.
The mysteries of the clematis are easy to unravel once the blooming time is identified. Explore the beautiful world of magnificent clematis blooms for your garden from spring to fall.