Plant Profiles: Clematis macropetala
Drawing by Rene Eisenbart
Feminist back row peddler
Early spring flowering, deciduous vine
Part sun to dappled shade; adequate moisture; amended, well-drained soil
Don't sweat the pruning; the vine's too small to cause trouble. Trim long shoots after flowering if you don't like its shape.
"Oh, goodness! How would you describe it?" Ask the clematis-struck Maurice Horn to tell you about the flowers on Clematis macropetala, and you can almost seem him blush from the effort. "They start as tight, tiny oblong buds that just get bigger and bigger, the swelling is so exciting... the flower color is a subdued but luscious lavender blue, like nothing else in a climber this time of year... and the seed heads are fabulous -- these fine, twisted threads becoming flight wings to be dispersed throughout the world!"
Delicate and ethereal? Look at them funny and they'll wilt? You don't know your C. macropetala. This species holds its own all the way up to the Arctic Circle ("mulched, of course," adds Horn) and is among the few clematis satisfactorily settled in Alaska. Native to northern China and Siberia, it's a rugged early-bloomer that's been there and done that before the harem girls of summer even open their eyes (forgive me, Elsa, Nelly and Betty).
Not that Maurice Horn is judgmental, mind you; the man cannot grow enough clematis. Joy Creek Nursery in Scappoose, Oregon, where Horn is part owner, is currently offering more than 150 forms. What sets C. macropetala apart in his mind, though, is the way it can be used in the landscape, vining its way through ordinary garden shrubs just as their vibrant, fresh foliage arrives.
Timing is everything in the garden, which is precisely what C. macropetala has in its favor when it's used as a climber through Horn's preferred scaffold, Pieris japonica. "It's the combination of colors that really makes my heart beat," says Horn, who loves the look of the flowering clematis nestled in the foundation plant's brilliant emerging leaves. "Like a blue clematis with copper foliage." Now imagine those same flowers blinking through the blinding young red leaves of photinia. Sort of scary, huh?
The reason C. macropetala is best grown through shrubbery is that the six- to ten-foot vine isn't all that interesting come June ("They lack charm," admits Horn). But let it work its way through, say, a double-file viburnum as the chartreuse foliage emerges, and the vine will conveniently disappear just as the horizontally tiered shrub fills out.
Given that C. macropetala and its cultivars take everything from sun to dappled shade, all you need in a host shrub is an accommodating shape. Nandinas, for instance, are too upright; rhodies are too dense, and they also lack the exciting spring foliage that C. macropetala needs to really show off. Shrub roses will work if you promise to trim them only lightly, lest you leave your enchanted April clematis all dressed up with no place to grow.
'Jan Lindmark': Bicolor effect from inner whitish and outer violet-purple sepals
'Markham's Pink': Strong, glowing, clear pink
'Maidwell Hall': Wisteria blue
'Rosy O'Grady': Rosy purple; once readily available, now hard to find
'Floralia': Subdued pale blue
Note: The white-flowered forms are thought to be far less robust and more difficult to grow.
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Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine
Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.