The long-lived and spectacular clematis

Story by Troy B. Marden

One of the very first vines I ever grew was the old-fashioned purple Clematis ‘Jackmanii’. I was 6 years old. This was back in the day when almost every store that offered general merchandise had a garden section where houseplants were offered year round and in spring, a selection of garden flowers and vegetables. Often, these plants were not potted and growing, but bare-root, in a small plastic bag with just a bit of soil and wrapped in cardboard boxes with colorful images of the plants within. These always caught my young eyes and one spring, after much begging, my mother relented and I proudly walked out of the store with a tiny clematis in a box.

‘Rooguchi’ took the gardening world by storm about 15 years ago and continues to reign in popularity. A scrambler reaching only 3 feet tall, it flowers from June to October.

I nursed that little clematis until it was warm enough to plant it outdoors, and not only did it live, it thrived. For more than 20 years, every May that ‘Jackmanii’ was covered from top to bottom with rich, purple blooms. Long after I left home and moved to Tennessee, people would still comment on it as they walked past my parents’ house. Some still remember it, though it eventually lost its vigor and disappeared after about 25 years – not bad for a $3 investment.

Once established, they will be long-lived and produce more blooms and increasingly spectacular shows with each passing season.

I still grow clematis today and last year, I added ‘Jackmanii’ to my Tennessee garden in the hope that it thrives and puts on the same kind of show here that it did in Kansas all those years ago. I have added many other clematis to the garden over the years and most have given me great pleasure. I prefer the large-flowered hybrids because of the spectacular show when they’re in bloom. That said, a good number of smaller-flowered varieties have made their way into the garden, as well, and I love them equally as much, if for different reasons. With a little planning and using several different types, I’ve found I can have a clematis in bloom from April through October.

Of the climbing, large-flowered hybrids, there are several standouts. ‘H.F. Young’ is at the top of my list! Its azure blue flowers can measure 8 inches from petal tip to petal tip and a mature plant can have well over 200 blooms on it during a four to six-week period in April and early May. It is also one of the earliest to flower here. If I prune it lightly after flowering and feed and water it well during the summer, it often offers a few additional flowers in late summer and early fall. In the same category, ‘Will Goodwin’, ‘Duchess of Edinburgh’, and ‘Nelly Moser’ are all old-fashioned cultivars that have performed well here. ‘Blue Angel’ (also known as ‘Blekitny Aniol’) is a newer hybrid that has also performed exceptionally well, bearing pale blue to lavender pink flowers (they can change a bit depending on the temperature) with a pearlescent sheen.

Of the smaller-flowering varieties, I prefer the many selections of C. texensis and its hybrids. Two of those are ‘Princess Diana’ and ‘Gravetye Beauty’, both of which have performed admirably here. Other small-flowering vining types include the C. viticella group, which boasts such spectacular selections as ‘Etoile Violette’ and ‘Madame Julia Correvon’ with dark, richly colored flowers borne in enormous quantity.

‘Blue Angel’ is a newer hybrid with pale blue to lavender pink blooms that have a pearl-like iridescence. Hundreds of blooms cover the vine for more than a month in late spring and early summer.

Not all clematis are vines, however, and I would be remiss not to mention the scramblers and “shrub” types that don’t vine, but, for the lack of a better term, scramble on and over their neighbors. At the very top of my list is C. integrifolia ‘Lake Baikal’, which makes a 2-foot-tall clump of somewhat lax stems with large lavender blue flowers at the tips of each branch May through September. The hummingbirds love it! A close second is ‘Mrs. Robert Brydon’, a form that has been around 50 or more years, but still proves itself every season. It’s also a scrambler, so plant it near a strong Hydrangea or other sturdy plant that it can drape itself over to best present its large clusters of small sky blue flowers. 

Finally, no modern garden should be without ‘Rooguchi’, a hybrid introduced from Japan about 20 years ago. A compact, semi-vining form that reaches only 3 feet, ‘Rooguchi’ bears cobalt blue flowers May through October without stopping. It puts on one of the finest summer shows in the garden!

Be patient with clematis. They will spend their first two or three seasons establishing an enormous root system and put on little top growth. Once established, they will be long-lived and produce more blooms and increasingly spectacular shows with each passing season.

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