by Dr John Howells

First published in Garden News, Aug. 12th 1997

The time when most new clematis were introduced was more than a hundred years ago. This was in the period 1860-1880. It started with Jackman's crossing of C. lanuginosa with C. viticella to produce C. 'Jackmanii'. The size of the flower and profusion of the plant was a sensation. Nurseries set about producing clematis all over Europe.

Then disaster struck. For centuries the fungus of clematis had been waiting for a decent meal. Suddenly there was clematis everywhere. The fungus set about them. There was devastation all over Europe. The nurseries abandoned clematis.

By now clematis has made a dramatic recovery. This is due to better nursery hygiene, fungicides and better understanding of clematis wilt. This rarely kills a plant. Once this is understood the damaged stem can be cut off. The roots are alive and soon produce new stems. As the stems mature they turn brown and are immune to wilt.

Where do the new clematis come from? From you quite often. A gardener may see a clematis seedling in the garden, pot it up, it flowers, then disappointment. Probably only one in a thousand is a winner but what winners we occasionally get. Clematis montana 'Freda' came this way. Mrs Freda Deacon of Woodbridge, Suffolk, noticed a seedling under her montana clematis. Jim Fisk, with the best eye in the business, saw it and recognised it for what it was – one of the best montanas ever.

Some gardeners do better than just wait for a chance seedling. They take the seeds their plants produce every year and sow them. Frank Cadge of Acton, Suffolk , produced 1,000 plants this way. Planted in rows covering a large patch of his garden they gave a dazzling display but only two or three were winners. I thought 'Acton Splendour' had a flower of rare delicate beauty. What makes a winner? It has to be different and distinctive. More of the same does not appeal.

The best clematis does not come by chance but by crossing two known parent clematis. You recognise desirable qualities in the parents and then try to reproduce these qualities. Its an expensive and time consuming business. Sometimes the work is undertaken by nurseries. Raymond Evison of the Guernsey Clematis Company has a large operation which may produce up to eight new clematis a year. Barry Fretwell of Perivale Nursery, a very successful hybridist, has introduced some glorious clematis – as we shall see. Vince and Sylvia Denny with feet in both the amateur and professional camps have been conspicuously successful. Sometimes it's an amateur, like Ken Pyne, who devotes his time to it.

But new plants come from abroad also. The old USSR produced new clematis in the Ukraine – at the Crimea and at Kiev. These travelled to Latvia and Estonia and now on to the rest of Europe. Russia too had its amateurs. An old lady of 70 in Moscow began hybridising in her garden and produced hundreds before her death at 101!

In Poland in the person of Brother Franczak, a Jesuit brother, we have one of the most successful hybridists in the world. In Sweden is Magnus Johnson, still busy in his 95th year. In Estonia Uno Kivistic, despite a harsh climate, has been busy for 20 years and his clematis is flowing to us. But the capital of hybridising in Europe has to be Boskoop in Holland. The capital outside Europe is Japan. Here they specialise in clematis suitable for pots.

Let's start looking for fine new clematis in Guernsey. 'Guernsey Cream' has been available longest. Large yellow clematis are rare. This is the best yellow we have. It is one of the first to flower in the spring. The flowers are a gorgeous shape, sometimes double, and make a profuse display. 'Arctic Queen' is a white double. The bloom is as striking as the old 'Duchess of Edinburgh', but scores by the large number of blooms – and as a considerable bonus, it produces double white blooms in the autumn. 'Blue Moon' struck gold at the 1996 Chelsea Show, when for the first time, a whole display was given to it. A delicate beauty in white and violet. Away from the Large Flowered, among the Herbaceous clematis, Guernsey produced a thing of joy - 'Petit Faucon' ('Little Falcon') – startling long yellow stamens against a deep blue background.

From Barry Fretwell let me start with what I suspect he regards as his masterpiece. After all he named it after his wife. 'Patricia Ann Fretwell' is Large Flowered. I have yet to see it but I am told it's a sensational globe of pink and red. 'Peveril Pearl', of a striking lilac colour must be mentioned. Also look out for 'Arabella', a herbaceous clematis with its blue bells covering the plant up to 6ft.

Jim Fisk is still introducing in his 85th year. Two are seedlings from 'Mrs Rowe' – delicate violet and white - single 'Norfolk Queen' and semi-double 'Mary Claire'.

Vince and Sylvia Denny produced one of the finest recent introductions – a new double montana, 'Broughton Star'. A strong grower, the plant has an attractive flower – a row of deep pink petals inside a lighter outer ring of petals. Before leaving them I should mention 'Vivienne Lawson' – a lovely striped clematis, and 'Laura Denny' – another fine double white.

A customer brought a seedling to Harry Caddick at his Thelwall Nursery. He saw its worth in a flash, named it after his daughter, and we have 'Jenny Caddick'. It starts flowering early for a viticella and keeps going until early winter. A beautiful glowing red, it's going to make a big impact. So is 'Mountain Cloud' from the same nursery. It's from Japan and given an English name. A cloud of beautiful ivory and violet, sensational in the morning light. Before leaving this country I must mention 'The Vagabond'. You could call it the “container clematis 'Jackmanii'”. Same colouring as 'Jackmanii' but a small plant covered with blooms. Made for a pot.

Time to move abroad – to Poland. Don't miss 'Blue Angel' ('Blekitny Aniol'). A strong growing viticella it has a lovely bloom – violet with a rough surface and crinkly edges. Just gorgeous with pink roses. From Poland comes a similar bloom but deeper in colour C. viticella 'Emilia Plater'. From Estonia an even larger crinkly violet viticella - 'Kasmu'. From Estonia too comes viticella 'Romantica' – a deep violet. Look out for the viticellas – they are trouble free and the clematis to grow.

From the Ukraine, born in the Crimea, via Estonia, we have a new herbaceous plant - 'Aljonushka' – large nodding cerise bells. Not to be missed. From Holland there is a new member of the orientalis group – golden yellow serratifolia 'Golden Tiara'. From Japan look for clear blue 'Fujimusume'.

Lets look back for a moment. By a curious mischance there are outstanding clematis that have been with us a long time and too little grown. For the spring find the montana like chrysocoma 'Continuity'. A most striking flower, pink and white, with long yellow dramatic stamens. For the autumn find 'Victoria'. Very reliable. Most productive of beautiful rosy purple blooms. You must grow it.

Reproduced by kind permission of Garden News.

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