‘Traveller’s Joy’, ‘Old Man’s Beard’, ‘Grandfather’s Whiskers’, ‘Hedal Feathers’, ‘Snow in Harvest’ are a few of the local names by which the only clematis native to England is known. The correct name is, of course, C. vitalba. Thehave also been used for smoking, which has earned it the extra names of ‘Boy’s Bacca’, ‘Smoking Cane’ and ‘Shepherd’s Delight’. On chalky soils it covers hedges and trees with a mass of attractive silver-grey seedheads which account for many of its popular names. These are in great demand at Harvest Festivals and many a window, font or lectern has been graced with long trails of clematis, very few people knowing that it is a clematis. Even fewer knowing it is the only clematis native to England. This was the only clematis in this country until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I when the Spanish native variety C. viticella was brought here. This is the little purple one that in the late summer with masses of small saucer-shaped flowers that hang downwards and which has since given rise to several attractive varieties in various colours.
Other varieties new to this country soon began arriving:
C. integrifolia from Hungary in 1573, an herbaceous variety with its nodding blue flowers. The evergreen clematis, C. cirrhosa, followed in 1590 from the Mediterranean, a valuable variety which flowers during the winter with white bell-shaped flowers. Then in 1597 the herbaceous variety
C. recta, or erecta as it was originally called, came from South-eastern Europe. This makes a bush of 3 to 4 feet with long shoots topped by masses of tiny white sweetly scented flowers. These four additions to the list of clematis seemed to suffice for a hundred years or so, but in the eighteenth century, as people began to travel more, so other specie clematis began to arrive in England — varieties that are still with us, such as C. flammula, C. calycina, C. orientates and C. alpina.
The century that started gardeners taking notice of the clematis was the nineteenth and by then plant collectors had begun to explore unknown countries and brought back such well-known varieties such as the montanas from the Himalayas, C. paniculata and C. patens from Japan, C. tangutica from Russia, and C. davidiana and C. lanuginosa from China, but the greatest discovery among these was the two varieties
C. lanuginosa and C. patens. Until that time it was thought that all clematis were small in flower, so when Philip Franz von Siebold brought back C. patens, violet-blue, 6 inches across, from Japan, one can imagine the amazement that was created. The Robert Fortune brought back the large-flowered
C. lanuginosa from China, 8 inches across, pale blue with a mass of prominent white stamens. It must have caused a sensation in the horticultural world in the early 1800s. Nurserymen must have pounced on these two and started hybridising like mad. They had already begun in 1835 with a cross between integrifolia and viticella at Henderson Nursery at St. John’s Wood, London, and which was called, not unnaturally, ‘Hendersonii’, it is still with us but now goes under the name of C. eriostemon.
The first successful crossing at Jackman’s Nursery at Woking in Surrey of C. lanuginosa with C. hendersonii and C. viticella atrorubens produced Jackmanii, a world-famous variety, and still as popular today as it was a hundred years ago. What an impression it must have caused when it first flowered in 1862. There seems to have been a bit of rivalry in those days as a rival from France, Simon Louis of Metz, claimed to have produced the same variety a year earlier and called it ‘splendida’, however the name did not stick and Jackmanii seems to have won the day. In fact the French firm printed a denial of their claim in the horticultural press. Other Nurseries who were engaged in hybridising were Messrs. Cripps and Son of Tunbridge Wells who produced Lady Caroline Nevill, which is still with us. Another fine variety still in our gardens was raised by Anderson-Henry of Edinburgh. This is the lovely pure white Henryi. Charles Noble of Sunningdale gave us Miss Bateman, a variety still loved by flower arrangers with its green bars on the white sepals.
On the Continent C. lanuginosa and C. patens were producing many varieties but very few of them have survived the course of time, and here in Great Britain hundreds of different varieties were raised and put on the market with such exotic names as Beauty of the Bower, Gloire de St. Julien, Lady Stratford de Redcliffe, Souvenir de Cardinal Wiseman, all of which have disappeared, which is just as well with names like that! A book written by Thomas Moore and George Jackman in 1877 called Theas a Garden Flower listed 343 varieties, and an advertisement at the back of the book says that ‘Since raising and introducing the well-known clematis Jackmanii, they have made the cultivation of this flower a speciality in their business, and they have thus been the means of distributing several hundred thousands of clematis, through nearly every civilised country in the world. In order to keep up anything like an adequate supply, they find it necessary to annually from 20,000 to 25,000 plants and to have a sufficient and extensive assortment of saleable plants for purchasers to select from, they have, at least, 50,000 plants grown in in the open ground, a mode of nursery culture which secures their safe removal at any period of the year, since they can be transplanted (out of ) at any season with little or no risk.’ The advertisements of a hundred years ago were certainly more ‘flowery’ than those of today. We think that the Garden Centre of today with its containerised plants is quite modern, but they were eighty years ahead of their time advertising containerised plants that could be planted at any time of year!
Until the end of the nineteenth century and early into this century clematis continued to gain in popularity and then their popularity waned, more and more plants seemed to go down with wilt and gardeners began to despair. Between the two World Wars saw the lowest ebb in clematis growing and hybridising is spite of William Robinson’s efforts at Gravetye Manor with his gardener Ernest Markham. Very few Nurseries specialised in them but since the 1940s interest has revived, many more Nurseries are growing clematis, Garden Centres have them on sale in pots, and many new varieties have appeared. More exhibits of clematis have appeared at Flower Shows and new fungicides have appeared on the market such as Benlate, which we hope will control Clematis Wilt, and eventually give clematis complete protection from this maddening malady.