WINTER FLOWERING CLEMATIS

by Dr John Howells

First published in Garden News, Nov. 15th 2001


Winter is probably the most valuable period of gardening in the gardening year. As growth ceases the gardener can turn his attention to a thorough overhaul of his garden, planning new developments, carrying out any structural work, checking his tools, and ordering plants for spring delivery. The winter gardener is a true gardener. One hour's work before Easter is worth five hours after Easter!

The activity takes place in a sombre scene. That scene needs colour. So this is just where the winter clematis come in. Trust clematis to do this. They flower every month of the year. I shall define winter broadly - the time when the average gardener is not seen very much in the garden - November to April.

As always in discussing any aspect of clematis the key is to think in terms of the twelve groups of clematis. Know one clematis in each group and you know the whole of clematis. In this period of winter which we are considering, four groups of clematis would be in flower. Group 12, the Late Group at the end of the year; Group 1, the Evergreen Group; Group 2, the Alpina Group and Group 3, the Macropetala Group. So let me take each in turn.

'Terniflora' comes in Group 12, towards the end of the year. It flowers from October through to November. I have known it flower in snow. It makes a very large plant - up to 6m (20ft) in height and the same distance across. It is covered with clusters of white sweet smelling flowers. A sight to behold! It is sometimes known as 'Sweet Autumn'. It needs to be planted in a sunny position to catch what light there is towards the end of the year. Prune a small plant to the ground in early spring. For a large plant prune back to the main stem.
'Napaulensis' is the first of the Evergreen Group, Group I. It scores for its lovely foliage and flowers. The flowers are hanging white bells with attractive long purple stamens. During the year it is dormant and looks as if dead. Then comes October and it springs to life with a most appealing light green, much divided, foliage. Grown in a pot it will flower by Christmas Day. In the garden it will flower in a warm corner, not until March-April. There is a fine specimen, about 3.5mx3.5m (12ftx12ft) on a brick wall near the Long Pond at Wisley.

Clematis cirrhosa can grow out of doors in sheltered positions and be in bloom from January onwards. It can make a big plant, up to 6m (20ft) in height. The flowers are hanging bells. In the wild the flowers and the foliage can be very variable within a few yards. One is freckled inside the bell and is known as 'Freckles'. 'Wisley Cream' is creamy-green. Flowers are followed by fluffy seedheads.

C. armandii flowers March-April and is hardy if planted out of the wind. It has large thick shiny leaves. Its flowers open in clusters and have a scent of hawthorn. It is a most desirable plant to have. Not only is it colourful but there is this major bonus of gorgeous scent early in the year. Try the pinky-white 'Apple Blossom' or white 'Bowl of Beauty'.

'Paniculata' is a lovely New Zealand plant which needs a conservatory in cold areas. Once established it can give a spectacular display up to 4.5m (15ft). The flowers are scented. It flowers in late winter. There are thick, glossy, small leaves. The male plant has pink anthers. The female plant has a boss of green carpels in the centre. All New Zealand clematis have male and female forms.

In late winter we come to the very hardy Group II Alpina (single bell) and Group III Macropetala (double bell) groups. These will flower on a north-facing wall or in semi-shade. They are very hardy. They look lovely hanging down over a low wall. Here we have a great choice - possibly 30 flowers in all. So I will mention some of the best.

Try 'Blue Dancer' for its elegant single nodding bells. 'Jacqueline du Pre' scores for its large bloom, rosy-mauve in colour. 'Pink Flamingo' flowers for a long time and the flower is a nice mixture of a deep and pale pink. 'Constance' is bright pinky-red and very free-flowering.

Now we come to the double bells of the Macropetala Group. There is no scent. 'Macropetala' itself is a lovely blue and it is hard to improve upon it. 'Markham's Pink' is reliable and attractive. 'White Swan' makes a lovely flower with light green foliage.

Now for something special. Jim Fisk grew clematis for 50 years and made his reputation on his capacity to spot winners. In his fiftieth year, true to form, his last offering was an exceptional macropetala. It scores for the vigour of the plant and the size of the bloom. The colour is dark blue and it is called 'Wesselton'. Named after Jim's village but spelt the old way.

With the evergreen plants napaulensis, cirrhosa, and paniculata, you have a choice of growing it indoors in a pot or grow it in the garden. If the garden, it must be a sheltered spot out of the wind and protected with horticultural fleece through the winter. But paniculata should always be in a greenhouse or conservatory. If planted under glass, there is a choice of planting in a pot or into the ground. If the former, in a pot, for most of the year it can be kept in the garden and moved indoors for flowering. There are now handy moveable platforms with wheels through which you can move your pots about. If into the ground, you may find a very large plant that is always there. I am reminded of a gardener who had such a large plant that his wife could not get into the conservatory. Finally, exasperated, she said one day "that plant goes or I go". She was kind, after all she could have said "that plant goes or you go"!

Plant all these plants as you would any shrub. No pruning is required except for terniflora. They are all free of stem rot (clematis wilt). So enjoy your busy winter in the garden in the company of these unusual, colourful, often scented, clematis.

Reproduced by kind permission of Garden News.




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