Clematis, or the Virgin’s Bower, to give the plant its common name, is surely the most beautiful of all climbing plants and is rightly called ‘The Queen of Climbers’.

Why the popular name is never used is a bit of a mystery. In most other plants it is the other way round and the popular name is far better known than the correct Latin one. Many people are often surprised to learn the correct names of plants they have loved all their lives. For instance the Latin name of another climber, the Ivy, is Hedera, and the Honeysuckle is Lonicera. When the name of Virgin’s Bower was first given to the plant is unknown, and there are two contenders for the title. The one most people accept is that it was named after Queen Elizabeth I who was known as the Virgin Queen. Plants of C. iriticella, the variety found growing wild in Spain, were brought over during her reign, and, it is said, named in honour of the Queen. Another idea is that it is named in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the wild variety of England, C. vitalba, comes into flower in August at the time of the Feast of the Assumption, or Lady Day in Harvest which is August 15th, and there is an old couplet which says: ‘When Mary left us here below The Virgin’s Bower began to blow.’

So you take your pick, but I am sure that they will never be called by their nickname but always their proper name ‘Clematis’, which comes from the Greek and means ‘a vine branch’, should be pronounced with a short ‘a’ as one would pronounce the letter ‘a’ in the sentence ‘a time and a place’, all three syllables having the same accent: CLEM A TIS.

To many people the word clematis still means either the small-flowering montanas which create such a picture in the spring, festooning everything within reach with their myriads of anemone-like flowers, or the purple Jackmaniis covering many a porch with a mantle of royal purple throughout the summer. True, these two varieties are still the most popular and are seen more than any others, but there are many more equally beautiful and perfectly hardy varieties and with less than half a dozen clematis we can have masses of flowers in the garden from March to October and often, in a mild autumn, to Christmas. There are even winter-flowering varieties which produce charming bell-shaped flowers from attractive evergreen foliage in mild spells from January to March. So with a little planning and a bit of luck the keen clematis grower can have flower the whole year round. And if flowers are lacking during the winter there are always the attractive seedheads that can be used in floral arrangements throughout the dull days of winter.

Clematis grow throughout the temperate regions of the earth, even as far north as the Arctic Circle, where the beautiful blue

C. alpina has actually been seen flowering in the north of Norway within the Circle. This gives some idea of the hardiness of clematis. In these northern districts they are often cut down to the ground every winter, but the roots remain alive and in the spring will send up strong shoots, soon to be covered with flower during their short summer. In the British Isles they are perfectly hardy and even that severe winter of 1962-63 failed to kill them. Many were cut down to ground level but they soon recovered in the spring and we had a riot of bloom the following summer.

Clematis belong to the family Ranunculacae which include such plants as buttercups, anemones, paeonies, aconites, kingcups, helebores, etc. Upon inspection it will be found that they have no petals, the flower consisting of the sepals which open out with green backs to quickly change in colour to give us the attractive flower with a central boss of coloured stamens. They climb by means of their leaves, twisting them round their hosts, or wire and trellis on the walls, so space must always be allowed behind their supports to give the leaves a chance to get behind and

grip the wire or trellis. They do not cling to walls, and when grown through trees and shrubs their grip is firm but light and they do no damage to their hosts. The flowers vary in size from the tiny star-like

C. flammula, which scents the garden during the autumn, to the enormous 10-inch blooms of such varieties as W. E. Gladstone and William Kennett. They are also diverse in shape, most of the hybrids being star-like and flat, but in the species there is great variation, some have bell-shaped flowers, single and double, such as C. alpina and C. macropetala. Some have tubular-shaped flowers such as C. afoliata and C. rehderiana, some have urn-shaped flowers as with C. texensis. Some are shaped like an anemone, the montana varieties for instance, and some like C, recta and C. flammula are very small and star-shaped. The species come from many different countries, but the majority are from China where many plants that we treasure in our gardens are found growing wild. A large number of them are not worth garden space, there are over 250 of them, and only the best are found in Nurserymen’s catalogues. The large-flowering hybrids that create such a sensation when seen in full flower are of recent introduction. Before 1850 there were only the small-flowered species but with the arrival of two large-flowering species collected in China, named Patens and Lanuginosa, the floodgates were open and during the latter half of the nineteenth century hundreds of different varieties were raised, many of them still with us today, such as Belle of Woking, Henryi, Jackmanii, William Kennett, etc.

Colours in clematis are varied and beautiful. There are no garish or bright colours, the majority of them being softer in shade than other garden plants, but they run through a complete range of colours, red, pink, purple, lavender, mauve, white and even yellow. The length of flowering time is much longer than with other flowers, each individual bloom will be at its best for three weeks or more, and when we get the summer-flowering varieties producing buds from June to September the effect is of a plant that is in flower for three months or more. The early-flowering varieties produce all their flowers at once and so do not give such a long-flowering period, but they often produce flowers for a second time on the young wood in late summer and autumn, so they also flower for two months and more. Many will climb to great heights, the montanas for instance will cover a 60-foot tree in a few years, producing a fantastic sight in May and June, while others will grow only up to 6 feet, such as Madame Edouard Andre or Hagley Hybrid, making them ideal plants for the bungalow or small garden. There are even herbaceous varieties, C. davidiana and C. recta, making a small bush of 3 or 4 feet, which do not look like clematis at all, but an ideal subject for the border and sweetly scented too.

Such then are the diverse forms, habits and beauty of the undisputed Queen of Climbers and I shall endeavour to give some hints of growing, training and looking after these most rewarding plants, together with a list of both species and hybrids.

During the summer of 1973 I spent a holiday at Gravetye Manor, nr. East Grinstead in Sussex. Gravetye! Now here is a name to stir all clematis lovers, for it was here that William Robinson and his gardener Ernest Markham created a wonderful collection of clematis in the 1920-30 period. The garden itself was started in 1885 and was completed in 1908 and William Robinson kept a journal of his work during that time. I was allowed to borrow this huge work and was fascinated to read of the planning and the planting of thousands of trees and shrubs. Clematis do not appear very much during the formation of the garden and the only mention of them is in 1893 when he says, ‘planted montanas, viticellas, flammulas and graveolons in the hedgerow and rose fence near the garden’. The only plants that remain now are the montanas with enormous thick stems, climbing through trees and flowering in profusion every spring and early summer.

Large-flowering varieties did not seem to catch his fancy until a much later date, when, with his faithful Ernest Markham, he planted many varieties between the two World Wars, experimenting with them in various parts of the garden. They also did a good deal of hybridising and produced many new varieties, Ernest Markham, Miriam Markham, Huldine, C. texensis Gravetye Beauty, C. tanguttca Gravetye to name but a few. All these have now disappeared as the garden was neglected during the Second World War when the Manor was taken over by the Army. However, strenuous efforts have been made since then to restore the garden to its former beauty by the present owners who run the house as an Hotel and Country Club.

I suggested to Mr. Herbert, the owner, that clematis should be planted in the garden again and he agreed and suggested that I should look round and find suitable spots. The obvious place should have been the pergola, a massive affair built of stone and oak timbers, but William

Robinson had built this to take the great weight of wistaria and today it is enveloped in great writhing stems, suggesting, as one walks through, a weird and gloomy tunnel of fossilised ropes. His idea was to have the wistarias eventually climbing through the nearby trees, and here in 1973 his dream was realised as the trees were all festooned in masses of wistaria flower, an incredible sight. As the pergola was thus engaged I had to look round for other situations and found an ideal spot at the lower side of the terraced garden, a large retaining stone wall with nothing much on it but ivy and one or two plants that would make ideal hosts for clematis. On the south side, which is about 6 feet high, we have planted Patens and Lanuginosa varieties that need no pruning and which will give a good show of flowers in the spring and early summer. On the north side, which is part of the terraced garden, the wall projects 2 feet above the soil. On this we have planted Jackmanii and Viticella varieties to scramble along the top of the wall, tumble down the south face and flower from July to October. They can all be cut back hard every winter and make a fresh start in the spring. So there will once again be a wall of clematis at Gravetye, to remind the devotees of the days of William Robinson and Ernest Markham.

So to those who say they cannot grow clematis, or that they are difficult to grow, I hope that after reading The Queen of Climbers you will try again, they are so worth while and rewarding, and to those successful and lucky people, whose gardens are filled with fabulous clematis, nothing need be said, except to express a little jealous admiration. They have the right soil and the time and patience to water and feed them, three essentials if one is to be successful in growing clematis. The right soil (and this can always be achieved by replacing poor soil, or enriching it with manure, peat and bonemeal). Feeding, without which no plant will grow properly or give of its best. Watering, one of the most essential ‘Musts’ for clematis as they belong to the buttercup family which grows in moist places and needs gallons of water a week during the summer. So if you want to grow clematis really well, plant deeply in a good soil with 3 or 4 inches of stem below the soil, and during the growing season soak with water two or three times a week and give a good feeding of a liquid fertiliser at least once a week. If you cannot spare a few minutes every week to do this then you really should not be growing clematis, but if you can, I guarantee that you will be richly rewarded with plants that will be the envy of all your neighbours, and clematis, the Queen of Climbers, will be a source of pleasure and joy to you the livelong spring, summer and autumn.

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.