by Dr John Howells

First published in Garden News, Nov.19th 1997

One of the delights of a cold wintry day in January is to have a scone tea at the Bull Hotel, Long Melford, Suffolk, and to look across the road at a house which has its front covered with a white clematis. This is one of the wonders of the year; to think that this clematis, native to the Mediterranean and especially the Balearic Islands, is in full flower on a wall facing north. The slightly scented nodding bells of C. cirrhosa are flecked inside with a reddish colour. But there is a variety which is almost pure white, 'Wisley Cream'. The secret to growing this clematis in our climate is to be sure that it is grown out of the wind.

The same conditions apply to the next clematis that will be in flower soon after C. cirrhosa. This is Clematis armandii. It needs a side of a house for space. The variety 'Snowdrift' is pure white, 'Apple Blossom' is flecked with pink. The scent is overpowering. It is such a gladsome sight in late winter that you could write poetry about it.

Rather later in the spring there is another most desirable evergreen clematis that you can grow. This is the New Zealand clematis, Clematis paniculata. It needs a frost-free area and a warm wall. To be quite sure you should grow it in a conservatory. The Victorians loved it and it filled their conservatories. So much so that wives were liable to say to husbands “You have a choice – that plant or me!”

Coming into March we have the alpina clematis. There are a number of white ones, Two desirable ones are 'White Columbine' and 'Burford White'. Soon afterwards, we are now in March, come the macropetalas. Here we can choose between 'White Swan' and 'White Lady'.

The alpinas have single bells and the macropetalas double bells. Both groups are very hardy and can lighten up north walls. They are superb hanging down over short walls. Grown near the house their bloom will bring you cheer, at a sombre time of the year.

Come April and we have a white clematis for the rockery enthusiast. This is C. cartmanii 'Joe', the male plant, or C. cartmanii 'Joanna', the female plant. This is another New Zealand plant. There is an easily grown variety called 'Early Sensation' which has just come in from Holland. This is an ideal pot plant.

Still in April we have a magnificent white montana, this is Clematis grandiflora. It needs an immense amount of room. It can cover the front of your house and then try to cover the two side walls as well. The blooms are large and lovely. 'Spectacular' is the only word for it.

Now as the weather warms up in early summer we have a considerable choice of Early Large Flowered clematis. Early in bloom is striking 'Miss Bateman' with its maroon centre. Amongst the singles we can choose between two favourites from the last century 'Henryii' and 'Marie Boisellot'. The latter is probably the most popular of all whites. Then there is 'Snow Queen' and the new clematis 'The Bride', The intriguing 'Louise Rowe' has single, semi-double and double blooms all at once. From the same stable, the Jim Fisk stable, there is 'Norfolk Queen', a delicate white tinged with violet. Then there is C. jackmanii 'Alba', sometimes more productive of leaves than of bloom.

There are two outstanding double whites, the well-tried 'Sylvia Denny' and the new 'Arctic Queen'. The latter produces double blooms in the autumn as well.

Moving now into mid-summer we meet two of the Late Large Flowering clematis - 'John Paul II' and 'John Huxtable' – the latter is very reliable and productive.

Still in mid-summer we have the tall growing and intriguing viticella 'Alba Luxurians'. There is sometimes as much green as there is white in this bloom that intends to be white. This makes for an eye-catching combination. 'Little Nell' can make an enormous plant and the bells are nodding with violet round the edges.

Moving into late summer we have C. campaniflora from Portugal that can cover an area 3m x 3m (10ft x 10ft) making an enormous plant with tiny nodding bells. Another splendid late viticella is 'Huldine'; the white has a violet stripe and the flower can be as attractive from behind as in front. A beautiful clematis for cutting.

At our feet in mid-summer and into late summer is C. integrifolia 'Alba', with beautiful clear white nodding bells. Earlier, but extending into late summer, is Clematis recta making a bush with thousands of tiny cruciform scented blooms. Both are ideal herbaceous plants.

Moving into autumn we have Clematis flammula from the Mediterranean. It's only semi-hardy here and needs a warm corner facing south so as to catch the autumn sun. It can reward you with a very large plant. The scent is overpowering. But it can disappear in a harsh winter.

Another very reliable autumn plant is C. fargessi. This can cover a large area and can swamp other plants. If you have a very large colourless rhododendron then this is the plant that will cover it. But make sure you cut it down after flowering. If you want a plant to rival our own Clematis vitalba try 'Western Virgin' from Canada. It literally covers itself with scented bloom and can be spectacular climbing into a dark tree.

We are moving now into late autumn and for those with a warm corner and sun then I would recommend Clematis terniflora. It would be shy to flower in a cloudy season but given sun it can make a wonderful impact. The plant is covered with panicles of small, cruciform, scented flowers. A compelling sight when it does well.

Of course, you need a white clematis in bloom for Christmas. I have one for you. This is Clematis napaulensis. All summer it has looked at if it were dead and then come late autumn light green attractive foliage appears from nowhere. And from this comes the dangling white bells. For true glory this does, of course, need a conservatory. As you dwell on napaulensis you think ahead of the joy to come next month – Clematis cirrhosa.

Reproduced by kind permission of Garden News.

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