MY CLEMATIS DIARY
January 1st, 2000
Perhaps one should start a new millennium by asking what is the most noteworthy clematis of the last millennium. In terms of interest, usefulness and reports in the literature, I expect the vote would have to go to Clematis vitalba which spread over a large area in Europe and which was continually in the news. It's stems were used for making baskets and all sorts of other things. Its stems were used for baccy. Its stems were used instead of rope. But it had very little medicinal value. Therefore it did not hit the headlines in the way that many other plants did.
But which was the most beautiful clematis for a garden? Every clematarian will probably answer differently. In the Early Large Flowered perhaps my vote would go to `Vyvyan Pennell' despite its wilting tendency. When at its best this is a glorious clematis with multi shades of blue and purple. Of the Late Large Flowered my vote would have to go to `Perle d'Azur' or `Victoria'. The former makes a large montana-like plant in the summer, but it can be slow to start off. The latter is trouble free and makes a large plant also. Others might give their vote to a Texensis such as `Etoile Rose' or `Princess Diana'. Which of the cultivars is easiest to grow? My vote here would go to `Hagley Hybrid'. Of course I expect the whole world to disagree with me.
On the last day of the old year the nursery of Jim Fisk at Westleton, Suffolk, England, closed forever. This ended 50 years of introducing clematis by the greatest introducer of clematis of all time, Jim Fisk. He just had an eye for a good clematis. Each introduction of his had to be distinctive. Far, far, too many clematis are introduced today which look so much alike. This really bewilders the would-be grower of clematis.
Do you have a plan in your garden? This is the time for making one. Make a general plan of your whole garden, positioning the beds, the paths, the structures, patios, etc. Then make an individual plan for each bed and special area. On each of the individual plans mark the position of the clematis with a cross. Even without going into the garden you can now have an immediate source of reference to all the clematis in the whole garden. I must make an additional point, if you make a new plan each year as you should, keep the old plans. The reason for saying this is that clematis has a habit of sometimes disappearing for a year or two. When it pops up you have no idea what it is. However if you consult the old plans, there you will find the name.
Have you thought about what additional plants your garden needs? Armed with the plan you can move into the garden and consider each bed and special area in turn. You ask yourself the question "Where could I profitably plant another clematis?" Probably so many spots will be found that you will find yourself having to think in terms of development over a number of years. So you can adjust your plan as the years go by. Having decided on a planting spot, this spot is marked on the plan with a round 'O'. The 'O' becomes a cross when the clematis has been planted.
This is the time of the year for digging the holes for your new clematis. Don't leave this task until the busy spring when you buy your clematis. Don't use heavy tools. Use a lady's spade and a lady's fork. Free the soil with the fork and lift out the soil with a spade. Retain the top 11/2ft (45cms) of soil. This is nutritious and your clematis needs it. The poor soil from the bottom of the hole can be dispensed with and replaced with a good compost, loam or a loam and manure mix. The holes are now already to receive the clematis later in the year.
Have you checked all the labels on your clematis in the garden? There is no such thing as a completely weather-proof label. Whenever possible, attach a label to a solid structure close to your clematis. Labels in the ground are easily overlooked, trodden on, and can be moved when you weed. Plastic labels should be replaced every two years at least. Most labels will have their lettering fade in a year. Take your "permanent marker" with you and if the lettering is fading then redo it.
I continued working attaching new labels near my clematis. The weather is cold and harsh. Don't clematis look so drab and miserable in the winter? All the leaves are brown or black and the stems the same colour. It's impossible almost to imagine that in a couple of months they will be full of vibrant green and colourful flowers.
Today I inspected all the clematis that had been carefully wrapped in bubble-wrap. They all look cosy. But is there any damage to the stems inside the wrap? I shall know in a couple of months. I also carefully examine the base of the plant where I have put extra soil to insulate the roots from the cold. Of course, here, it is unlikely that we shall have a temperature less than -5C.
Still busying myself with the labels in the garden. I came across a Russian clematis 'Luther Burbank'. This is the plant that was reared in Yalta, the Crimea, Ukraine. Yet it commemorates the great American horticulturalist, Luther Burbank.
To my knowledge there are three small towns that have the appealing name of 'Paradise'. Two are in Australia. One is 42k east south-east of Melbourne and the other is near St Arnaud in Australia. There is also a village of that name in Gloucestershire in the west of England, UK. The latter I know and it deserves the name.
However from our point of view it is the first of these three townships which is of interest. Because of the confusion in Australia between the two Paradises the first, near Melbourne, changed its name to 'Clematis' in 1921. This was because the surrounding area was inundated with Clematis aristata, the wild clematis of Australia. This township had a population of 250 in 1961.
Today I fathomed a mystery. Two years ago I planted the viticella 'Minuet' together with viticella 'Tango'. They were planted close to one another so that I could compare the one with the other. Both put up a fair display in the first year. The second year again there was a promising display. Then 'Tango' suddenly died. Later in the year 'Minuet' died. Why had these two robust plants which are not afflicted by wilt (stem-rot) died? Until today I had not had time to investigate. Today I carefully dug down at the site of both plants. I took a small amount of soil away at a time and carefully worked my way down looking for signs of damaged roots. What I found on the site of 'Tango' was a pot! It seems that being in a hurry I had just popped the plant into the ground in its pot! I then dug down on the site of 'Minuet'. Extraordinarily, I found another pot. So again I must have planted the clematis in a hurry and left it in its pot. Presumably both grew as well as they could in the confines of the pot and then, as they could not escape from their pots, of course, they gave up the ghost. There are times when it is useful to plant a clematis in its pot. This would be because one wished to cause as little disturbance to the plant as possible. However, as these examples show, one should take away the bottom of the pot.
I see that in 1996 the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK reported a small epidemic of slime-flux on Clematis montana. I have certainly come across this problem. I don't think that the condition is a great mystery. A crack in the bark can occur for a variety of reasons - frost, insect damage, physical damage. The sap exudes from the cut. As it is sugary, in no time at all bacteria move in, and you get a smelly mess. One can still usually save the plant simply by cutting under the flux and removing the debris. If one is very quick and sees the damage soon after it occurs, one may be able to wrap a bandage around the stem and prevent the exudation of the sap.
I was asked by someone today why we clematarians use the term 'tepal'. I had to explain that our flower is one of the few where the sepal takes on, in addition to its own functions, the functions of the petal. Thus it protects the bud like a sepal and attracts insects to the plant like a petal. So it is given this special name of tepal.
Today I came across so many of my plastic labels that have become brittle and are disintegrating. If someone could invent an indestructible plastic label they would surely make a fortune. I am still checking labels in the garden. Occasionally one comes across a wrong label, for example, I bought a clematis called 'Hagelby White', but this proved to be 'Hagley Hybrid'. Another I came across was labelled 'H F Young' but proved to be 'Perle d'Azur'. One often does not notice the wrong labelling until the plant flowers and this could be months from the time of purchase. I expect that most reputable nurseries would replace the plant on being shown the label. In theory in the UK you can return defective goods up to a period of seven years!
At this time of the year, and now it is winter in the UK, it is surprising the number of clematis that try to throw up buds, however cold the weather. This is particularly true of the viticellas. And of all the viticellas the one that tries to get away quickest is 'Jenny Caddick'. This is a beautiful new introduction. Glowing red flowers which come in abundance. It seems to be the first viticella to flower and also the last to flower going right into the autumn. A really fine new clematis, one could almost say a clematis for every garden.
If one were to ask oneself the question "What clematis would you recommend for every garden, what would they be?" Everyone I suspect would answer this question differently. We all have our favourites. I would certainly want to include 'Victoria', C. montana 'Mayleen', C. montana 'Freda', 'Durandii', 'Etoile Violette', 'Triternata Rubromarginata', C. orientalis 'Bill MacKenzie', or 'Golden Tiara'. One could not go wrong with any of those.
Have you ever thought how much one can owe to the "silent partner". Very often in gardening only one member of a partnership is the active gardener. However the other partner can still play a very important part. The gentle encouragement, praise and appreciation is a great help to the active member. Allowing time, resources, and money to go into the garden is again a matter of active support. So we must acknowledge not only the active partner but also the 'silent partner'.
I'm still active checking my labels. Today I came across the label of Clematis 'Sylvia Denny'. This immediately reminded me that another important nursery and hybridising centre had closed in 1999. This was the nursery of Vince and Sylvia Denny at Broughton, Preston, UK. These partners were one of the most active and successful hybridists of the UK. Everyone knows 'Sylvia Denny', a beautiful double white, which was named by Vince after his wife Sylvia. In 1998 the partnership had a very fruitful year in that their outstanding montana 'Broughton Star' was awarded an AGM by the Royal Horticultural Society. In the same year they won a cup for the best introduction in the trial ground from the UK. Both had a vast amount of experience and they were always happy to share their knowledge with others, claiming they in turn had benefited greatly from the help they had received from Jim Fisk. I always bowed to Vince - because he was older than me. He is five days older than I! We shall both be 82 in June, 2000. I never felt it was a particular target to reach the millennium, nor do I suppose that Vince did either. You live for years ahead not just for next year.
I was reflecting on the age of clematis. How long can they live? I know of a clematis in Hergest Garden in Herefordshire, UK, which, the owner claims, was planted by his father. So we must be talking about 100 years there. Barry Fretwell came across a plant of C. flore pleno ('Mary Rose') by chance in someone's garden. From that plant he was able to re-introduce C. flore pleno. The trunk was enormous so we can assume the plant had been there for a very long time. One still has to wonder how long. There are plenty of clematis that people can recall have been in their gardens, or gardens known to them, during their lifetime. Unhappily the reverse is also true. Some clematis live for a very short time - often struck down by wilt, by stem rot (clematis wilt) or some other disease. It is a continual battle that we are involved in to lengthen the life of all clematis.
We in the northern hemisphere should give a thought to what is happening in the southern hemisphere at this time of the year. Now, of course, it is warmth down there. In fact, they must be passing into their autumn. I imagine that the texensis and the orientalis groups and the very large flowered clematis are all in bloom there. New Zealand, of course, at Christchurch has a very important centre of hybridising. There is a great deal of activity in Australia also. South Africa is not prominent in the clematis world. It does, however, have an interesting native clematis, clemoptosis, which some people thought was not a clematis at all. Now it is agreed amongst experts that it is a clematis. Indeed some have claimed that it is the precursor of clematis. On a visit some years ago I was disappointed to see so little interest in clematis. The excellent Botanic Garden at Durban, for instance, had no clematis. So I have sent them some. Which reminds me, I need to ask them how they are getting on. We know very little also about the growing of clematis in South America. Of course a famous clematis came from the Argentina. This was 'Dr Ruppel' grown by Dr Ruppel.
Talking of the southern hemisphere reminds one of the dangers of introducing clematis into new areas. I am referring to the introduction of Clematis vitalba into New Zealand. There it has become a national pest. It grows so strongly its swamps their native trees. Concern has reached government level and efforts are being made to find enemies to the vitalba. However whatever they try the vitalba is strong enough to resist. They even tried innoculating it with stem rot (clematis wilt). They could grow the fungus on the leaves alright, but the plant resisted any attempt at invasion.
Someone today did me a little service. So I gave them a clematis plant 'Victoria'. They were very pleased. I was also pleased that this particular clematis was available. It is really one of the most rewarding of all clematis to grow. It can make an enormous eye-catching feature. Certainly as large as a small montana and coming in the late summer when there is not too much colour about. It can occasionally suffer from mildew. A fortnightly application of a fungicide soon sorts that out.
Today I came across the seedheads of 'Fair Rosamond', there to delight me. Even now, on this cold blustery day, they still had their deep yellow tinge. I must try to catch them when they have a lining of frost. Anyway, who was Fair Rosamond? It is said that she was the mistress of Henry II of England. Knowing of the Queen's jealousy to his mistress, he built a house for her which was so constructed that it was difficult to find your way around the house. It was a labyrinth. However the legend says that someone left a silken thread in the maze which the Queen followed to find Fair Rosamond and dispose of her. Our clematis 'Fair Rosamond' of course, is the only clematis in the Large Flowered groups that has real scent. My plant gives a wonderful primrose scent as it matures.
Before going into the garden today my attention was drawn to one of the clematis catalogues. Each year the list of clematis gets longer. The number of clematis listed in the Plantfinder is about 1,000. That we should introduce so many, is this necessarily a desirable tendency for clematis? At the end of the last century Jackman trying to explain the fact that the nursery trade in clematis had died gave two reasons: 1. The advent of stem rot (clematis wilt).
2. That too many clematis were produced which were similar. Today we have probably twice the number of clematis available for sale as they did in the last century, maybe three times as much. We need to pause and think. The customer gets bewildered by the choice. So many look alike. How is the customer to know what is garden worthy? The British Clematis Society has a trial ground and the object is to establish the merits of the clematis coming on the market. But the number on trial is a small fraction of those coming on the market. Recent introductions which have been given awards at the trial ground without doubt have merit - the montana 'Broughton Star', the herbaceous clematis 'Petit Faucon', the Early Large Flowered clematis 'Romantika' and last year 'Golden Tiara' from the orientalis group. Any of those are obviously of merit. But what does one know about the rest of the clematis flooding the market?
Do you make use of your leaves? I am fortunate in that I have trees both in my garden and around the garden. In particular I have a large oak tree. In the late autumn each year we collect all the leaves so that they can be used for mulching. In the old days, when I seemed to have time, these were put into wire cages and then they rotted down over the next couple of years. About a 3ft (1m) depth of leaves ended up with about 4ins (10cms) of leaf mould. This was excellent material, possibly the best material of all mulches. This was then put around the clematis. Nowadays I don't seem to have the time for this so I just pile the leaves on the beds to a thickness of about 6ins (15cms). Over the next few months these will rot down and make a mulch that will last the best part of the year.
We possess an extraordinary large holly tree which must go up to 100ft (30m) or more. Climbing up it I have Clematis montana 'Rubens'. This got almost to the top of the holly tree and was a wonderful sight in the spring. However, an interesting thing happened which lead to the death of the clematis. As the holly tree grew so it grew outwards, and ultimately the montana roots were entirely in the shade. I failed to notice this, failed to water it, and so the montana died. I have planted another montana, C. montana 'Alba', but this time it is going to be well away from the holly tree and will be led to it by a long cane. Also I have planted the montana in such a way that there is a trough on the surface where the montana is planted. It will be an easy matter to pour water into the trough so that it finds its way down to the thirsty roots of this giant clematis.
How many deaths amongst one's clematis should one tolerate? Like any other plant the clematis must be subject occasionally to accidents and mishaps. One might forget to water it. One might unwisely allow fertiliser too close to the stems. One might allow shade to go over it. It might find itself in a nest of woodlice or ants. These things can all happen to any plant in the garden. These one has to regard as inevitable and just a matter of bad luck. What can bother us about clematis is that some of them, particularly the Large Flowered, seem to be constitutionally weak. It may well be that away from their natural habitat in China they don't find other climates congenial. There may be some subtle entity missing in our soil which was available in China, or they preferred their neighbours there. In addition, of course, this group is subject to stem rot (clematis wilt). This is where the gardener grumbles. This is not an acceptable hazard. Some experienced clematarians simply turn away from the group and get great pleasure from growing the other trouble-free eleven groups. Interestingly enough, stem rot rarely kills a clematis. Its apparent death leads to the gardener neglecting it and so it dies. But given proper attention new shoots always come up from the roots.
This evening I have been looking at the plan of my garden, in particular, the areas marked with clematis. I put a X on the plan of each bed where I have a clematis. Running through the position of each clematis I realise I have lost a few clematis during the year. I can also see one or two places where I could profit from growing clematis. My next step is to list the clematis and then make a plan for their purchase and planting.
Should one plant clematis in the spring or should one plant in the autumn? Until recent years there wasn't much choice. If you bought your clematis you usually bought it from a mail order nursery who sent it to you in the autumn. This suited the nursery very well because the autumn was a quiet time when the packing could be undertaken. Furthermore the nursery did not have to hold this stock through the winter. Sometimes the plants arrived in the early autumn. This is a good planting time, thought not the best. All too often they arrived late in the autumn when the best one could do was to pop them into the cold soil and hope. It was not realistic to expect any growth in those plants in the winter. I have heard it said that planting in the autumn means that you gain a year. This does not really bear examination. The amount of growth in the winter is very small in cold soil. Clematis planted in the spring in a warm soil rapidly catch up with any clematis planted in the autumn. The advantage of spring planting is that the plant finds itself in congenial warm soil. Furthermore, instead of looking for dormancy as it does in the autumn, the plant has an impulse to grow. This is a theoretical discussion anyway. Gardeners have already decided when they are going to plant clematis. This is in the spring. Any nursery nowadays not able to supply clematis in the spring has probably lost by far the biggest portion of its trade.
I have a special pest in my garden - peacocks. One should say peacocks and peahens, I suppose. Anyway the males are very decorative, particularly when they display, in the mating period. But they also have disadvantages - they are noisy, dirty, and feed on young seedlings. They are the enemy of clematis. As the young shoots come through the ground the peacocks gobble them up as we would eat asparagus. When the clematis plants are growing strongly they go for the young green shoots. They don't eat the mature stems which are acrid and poisonous. One neighbour got rid of their peacocks because the peacocks attacked their cars. When the car is highly polished the peacock sees another peacock and attacks it. I protect the young shoots of my clematis by having wire netting up to 3ft (1m) around each plant. This also protects the plant against pheasants, of which there are many in my garden, and also the odd rabbit that finds it's way in. They roost on the chimneys and make an attractive picture silhouetted against the twilight. When I see a peacock I am reminded of Edith Sitwell, the poetess. She was brought up in a country house in a most emotionally deprivatory situation. Her only friend was a peacock. They walked together round the grounds with her arm round his neck. I have often been tempted to take really forceful action against these peacocks but I am deterred by the thought of Edith Sitwell.
Forward to February 2000
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