Gardening with Galligan: Clematis and other vines

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | Nelly Moser vines growing on a wall-mounted trellis. This was Nelly’s first year; since then she’s grown wonderfully.

Before turning back to vines, one last word about butterfly weed. Someone stopped me in the IGA last week and asked if it was all right to cut the dead blooms off her butterfly weed.

Because my mind was fastened to the fact that we were out of paper towels, I answered without thinking that, indeed, it was. Which is true. However, a better answer might have been, “Yes, but since it is an endangered species, why not let it go to seed? That way, you might have more of it in future and so might your neighbors.”

Now, back to vines.

One of my favorites is clematis and I have several different varieties. (I should begin by saying that I mispronounced the name of this vine for many years, corrected, gently, just a few years ago by the horticulturalist at White Flower Farm.

The emphasis is not on the second syllable as I thought, but on the first.) This vine is easy to grow and has so many cultivars that it’s possible to have one or the other in bloom almost all summer long. They have been popular with gardeners for many years, beginning with jackmanii, introduced in 1862. The wild species of clematis, originating in China, found its way into Japanese gardens, early in the 17th century. These plants were the first clematises to reach European gardens, which they did in the 18th century.

Some species are known as Traveller’s Joy, the name given to the plant by the herbalist, John Gerard. If we do find time this fall to talk about famous plantsmen, he will certainly be on the list. An Englishman, one of the early wave of Renaissance natural historians, his book, “Herball,” was extremely popular in 17th century England, because his writing was practical, lively and interesting, capable of being read by non-Etonians. The book was still in use in the early 19th century. He was close to his contemporaries, among them the German botanist, Leonard Fuchs, for whom Fuchia was named and the Flemish botanist, Matthias de l’Obel , for whom Lobelia was named.

The cultivars with large flowers, Nelly Moser is a good example, do best when climbing on a firm structure — a wall, a wall-mounted trellis and archway or pergola. Nelly blooms early, well before Jackmanii, and has a pleasing, natural flowering habit. In my experience, the larger flowering varieties have less of a tendency to strangle themselves, consequently requiring less supervision, always a plus. The smaller flowered varieties can go anywhere and scramble up anything, from walls to fences to trees and through shrubs.

Clematis will grow in any good garden soil. The roots, however, should be kept cool and moist where possible; this can be achieved easily with a heavier than usual mulch. Some species, and Nelly is a good example, do better in light shade. Since light shade is almost all I have, that’s why she’s been my choice. Books on vines advise that clematis can be grown successfully in containers. I’ve tried to think of why one might choose to do this, but so far have been unsuccessful.

Nonetheless, should you wish to, apparently you can.

When pruning clematis, consider the following: the early flowering hybrids require no pruning, although it is always wise to remove tangled growth. According to the books, hybrids blooming in early summer, on the growth of the previous season, should be pruned lightly when the plant is dormant. Late flowering hybrids, blooming on this season’s growth, can be pruned back to the first pair of buds when the plant is dormant. However, should you wish to do so, I have never had any adverse experience in cutting the vine down to within a foot of the ground in spring and then feeding appropriately.