Versatile Clematis Clings on in Popularity

The clematis vine has flat, pinwheel-shaped petals that are vivid in color.

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As the peonies depart and the roses' flush fades, the clematis vine promptly steps in to take their place, with its flat, pinwheel-shaped petals, vivid colors and twining habit.

So promptly that Renee Waun was surprised to find that her 'Jackmanii' clematis had suddenly bloomed in her Edgewood, Pa., garden, spilling its royal purple velvet flowers over her two-level deck in profuse abandon.

"I truly think this is the biggest clematis in Pittsburgh," Waun said, looking with wonder at a plant that, she says, has pretty much grown up on its own without any help from her.

Still, with all due respect to those who think clematis begins and ends with such beloved old-timers as 'Jackmanii' or the chalk-white 'Henryii' it must be said:

They don't know jack. (Or henry).

"Those are beautiful plants, but there is so much more fantastic clematis out there for gardeners to choose from," says Sue Austin, proprietor of Completely Clematis Specialty Nursery, a mail-order business just north of Boston.

For more than two decades, Austin has tested hundreds of varieties of hard-to-find clematis (she pronounces it CLEM-atis, others pronounce it clem-AT-is; take your pick) in her garden. There are plants from China to the Himalayas to upstate New York, in every conceivable shape, from bell to star to jester's cap, from showstoppers like the practically neon 'Blue Light,' a lush double clematis with a lime green center, to the more subtle 'integrifolia' clematis, with single, drooping petals that can be draped horizontally across a perennial border.

While the Rev. Stefan Franczak of Poland is generally considered the greatest hybridizer of clematis today, Austin is widely admired in this country for her willingness to seek out the rarest and most unusual varieties and make them available to consumers, with an eye toward the short growing season of Northern gardens. In a recent interview, she could barely contain her enthusiasm when talking about her collection, garnered initially from a nursery on Long Island -- "they were cranking them out like jellybeans" -- and later, from British and Polish purveyors.

When she first gazed upon 'Texensis' with its unusual bell-shaped blooms 25 years ago, "I totally freaked," and from then on, she says, "I had to have them all."

And today, she practically does.

There's 'Betty Corning,' a fragrant, lilac-colored, "nodding" bell-shaped vine of great vigor that can grow to 15 feet and blooms nearly all summer.

"It's nothing short of a miracle," says Austin. "If I could have only one clematis in my garden, this would be it."

Another favorite of Austin's is 'Mayleen,' a fragrant spring bloomer from the Montana Rubens family, with attractive bronze foliage and smaller flowers than the showier hybrids, but with a longer reach: 30 feet instead of the usual 15. Another, 'Montana Freda,' has foliage that is almost prettier than the deep pink flowers, Austin says.

Then there's 'Huldine,' a late-blooming clematis with undersides as pretty as their tops and with translucent pearly white petals streaked with mauve. It must be pruned back hard in the spring, but it puts up 20 feet of flowers.

In fact, unlike the older varieties, which mostly bloom in early summer with scattered repeat blooms later on, Austin says many of the newer hybrids can produce flowers through fall.

"The flowers may not always be as large in size as the older types, but they provide tons more color over a longer season, without the disease problems, either," says Austin, noting that clematis wilt -- the bane of 'Jackmanii,' 'Henryii' and some other varieties -- is unheard of on these other plants.

"All of my favorites have to be tough."

Another plant she carries is 'Niobe,' which is blooming in Nancy Smith's Mt. Lebanon, Pa., garden, along with several others. Smith, a garden designer, says she loves 'Niobe' for its rich ruby color. In fact, she has become more and more enamored of clematis lately. She is waiting for 'Dr. Ruppel', a recent purchase, to bloom as well as a sweet autumn clematis she brought from her father's garden.

Smith has planted two other clematis on the exterior of Mt. Lebanon's library: 'Jackmanii' and 'Belle of Woking,' a white double.

"Clematis is versatile, and I like the fact it can climb into shrubbery, with the flowers peeking out from it. It also covers blank walls very nicely."

For even greater garden impact, twine it up through rose bushes, or plant two close together that have different bloom times, adds Austin, whose durandii Integrifolia, a vivid indigo purple, grows through her white 'Snow Queen' hydrangea.

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