Dubbed the Queen of Climbers, clematis starts humble. But once rambling up a trellis and thick with flowers, this perennial is, indeed, regal. New varieties come in many colors with longer bloom times, and in sizes from 2 to 20 feet.

By Teresa Woodard
June 06, 2021
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Clematis
'Dr. Ruppel' clematis and a Colette climbing rose
| Credit: LAURIE BLACK

Naming Rights Is it pronounced CLEM-uh-tis or cla-MA-tis? Either, but experts tend to use the former. The name comes from the Greek klēma, for vine branch. Above, 'Dr. Ruppel' clematis creeps up an arch to meet a Colette climbing rose.

Four To Try

Most garden centers carry clematis, but you'll find more diversity online, including funky shapes, dozens of hues and even shrub varieties. One top source: Donahue's in Faribault, Minnesota, a 49-year-old family business that grows 130 varieties under 4 acres of greenhouses—1 million plants in all.

Clematis
Josephine
| Credit: COURTESY OF DONAHUE’S

JOSEPHINE This 6- to 8-foot double pink clematis is a Donahue's bestseller launched by legendary British breeder Raymond Evison. As its flowers age, the outer petals fall away, revealing a central pom-pom. Another stunning double is Diamantina in purple-blue.

Clematis
'Stand By Me'
| Credit: COURTESY OF WALTERS GARDENS

'STAND BY ME' Instead of vining, this clematis grows as a 3-foot shrub. Its abundant bell-shape flowers open by June and return in late summer. After blooming, cream thread-like seed heads appear. Other compact varieties: yellow 'Little Lemons' or red Rebecca.

Clematis
'Silver Moon'
| Credit: COURTESY OF DONAHUE’S

'SILVER MOON' This cultivar thrives in shade to part shade, climbing up to 10 feet with large, silvery mauve flowers that will brighten dark spots in the garden. Other shade-lovers to consider include lilac Clair de Lune and compact pink Abilene.

Clematis
'Kilian Donahue'
| Credit: COURTESY OF DONAHUE’S

'KILIAN DONAHUE' Hybridized at Donahue's, this super-hardy clematis reaches up to 10 feet and blooms June through September. Watch its colors change from ruby red to fuchsia and lavender as blooms linger. Another hardy favorite is the classic 'Jackmanii.'

Climb Time

Clematis can only cling to something less than 1 inch in diameter, so consider adding "helper lines" of twine or fishing line to these options.

Clematis
Credit: PETER KRUMHARDT

WALL TRELLISES. Install against a fence or wall to sustain vigorous vines that climb beyond 6 feet.

TUTEURS. Pyramid-style trellises create vertical interest in perennial borders. Obelisk-shape models work well in beds or pots for shorter vines or shrub forms.

POSTS. Lamp, fence or deck—any solid post can support a clematis, as long as you add slim guide lines.

OTHER PLANTS. Yep! Add surprising color to a shrub rose, conifer or tree by planting a clematis vine at the base.

Tips From A Pro

Donahue's Kathy Donahue Nass says to start with a gallon-size plant that's hardy for your zone. Dig a hole deeper than the pot in a sunny spot and plant so the first two sets of leaves are buried. Water twice a week for six weeks, then once a week if dry. Clematis prefers "cool feet and sunny shoulders," so mulch the base or shade it with other plants. Prune by early spring to encourage full new growth. Methods vary by variety, but Nass says "the ponytail cut" works for most Midwest clematis. Grab a handful of growth and chop off 6 to 9 inches above soil level.

Planting Ideas

Kathy Donahue Nass plants two varieties together to mix colors and bloom times, and she trained sweet autumn clematis up old crabapples (fooling neighbors into thinking the trees were reblooming in fall). Shorter varieties can be grown in 18- to 20-inch containers. Overwinter them in an unheated garage until mid-April.