Growing Clematis by Vicky Barney
Last week I had the pleasure of touring some Old Town Steamboat gardens and was particularly charmed by blooming clematis plants. The cultivars had beautiful blue flowers on long vines, one covering a tall trellis, the other running along a porch roof beam. Both were several years old and looked very happy. I went home, inspired to find the clematis growing in my garden (planted by the previous homeowner 5+ years ago), and determined to make it as healthy as the ones I saw.
First, though, I needed more information. I found research-based information and learned that clematis (pronounced CLEM e tis, Greek for vine) is a showy and hardy perennial that fares well in Routt County’s climate. In the Ranunculaceae (Buttercup) family, it produces flowers most often in shades of purple, blue, pink, or white and blooms at various times during the summer months, depending on the variety. Most varieties grow as vines but there are some mounding varieties.
Native Colorado clematis include Clematis ligusticifolia, or Virgin’s Bower, which is a vine that produces numerous small white flowers in mid to late summer and may grow to 20 feet. Clematis scottii, or Scott’s sugarbowl, grows in a small mound and produces nodding purple flowers in late spring to early summer.
There are numerous cultivated varieties of clematis. Gardeners can choose a variety based on size and shape of mature plant, flower color, flower size, bloom time, and zone rating. Cultivars with a zone rating of 3 or 4 will thrive in our cooler climate; ones with a rating of 5 may need to be placed in a warmer part of the garden. Most important is to select plants that are healthy looking from the start as they will have the best chance of long term success. Planted in the right place (lots of sunshine, shaded roots, adequate water, room to grow, and with some varieties, an adequate support system), a clematis may live for 10 to 20 or more years.
As for care, clematis may need special support structures and some pruning. Unlike hops or morning glories, clematis vines do not grow around a structure; they wrap their leaf stems around something with a small diameter (up to a ½ inch). Twine, thin branches, and small diameter dowels work best to guide the growth. The plant may or may not need pruning, depending on the variety. It’s best to wait until mid-spring to prune and cut back the vines that are clearly dead.
Now for my plan. When I started tending my new garden 4 years ago, I discovered a sad looking clematis vine in a shady spot and carefully moved it into the sun. The results have been disappointing; the vine has stopped growing and I’ve yet to see flowers. My steps to restore it to health are as follows:
1. Set up a small trellis. If there is not an appropriate support system, the vining varieties stop growing.
2. Check that other plants have not grown up and created shade. Neighboring plants may need to be moved.
3. Feed it. Unlike my native perennials, this plant is likely a cultivar requiring more nutrients.
Every article I found in my research said that clematis require patience. It may be several years before my plant is mature enough to produce an abundance of flowers. But as I saw in the Old Town Steamboat gardens, a clematis in bloom is worth the wait.