In spite of the fact that I have grown Clematis afoliata in my home garden since 2001 and never had it bloom, it is such a wacky novelty that I cannot resist it. It does bloom well at the Rogerson Clematis Garden, and when you really only have flowers going for you as an attraction, it's lucky the blossoms are charmingly colored (buttercream yellow) and fragrant.
The specimen at the RCG is a male (the species is dioecious), so we've never had seed arise, but I've taken cuttings of my plant, hoping it will bloom there and prove to be a female. When taking C. afoliata cuttings, try to take branched nodes, which root more easily and begin to vine more quickly than straight pieces (and you can tell which way is up!).
C. afoliata - It's a boy!
A well-grown specimen of "the clematis with no leaves" is truly a sight to see. It's easy to understand why this native of New Zealand has the common name rush-stemmed clematis. Imagine a loose bundle (some might say snarl) of thin round bright green clematis stems (to three meters tall or wide) with opposite petioles that come to nothing, scampering over low shrubs. In cultivation it can cause a lot of comment wandering down rock walls or boulder-strewn gravel gardens. In the wild it is found in association with shrubs of the genus Coprosma, and in the US there are a couple of west coast nurseries that carry species and named forms from this large genus.
C. afoliata in the wild on the Banks Peninsula, South Island, New Zealand
For sheer volume, the largest specimen of C. afoliata I've ever seen was at the East Ruston Old Vicarage when I had the chance to visit this Norfolk UK garden twice in quick succession. In 2004 the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon toured there in late June, and ten days later I returned with the International Clematis Society. The walking-surface of their sales area was packed gravel, and garden co-owner Alan Gray said they "slung" it in the gravel at the end of a display bench because they couldn't figure out where else to put it. The round canes were artfully tied and leaned up and over a wooden arm just under 2 m tall. When there with the HPSO group, I knew what it was and began offering obeisance to the noble if leafless clematis in the form of a little squeal and dancing on my tiptoes. Our host was pleased someone knew what it was, but it must be said that, plant geeks though they were, none of my fellow travelers were as elated by the sight as I was. Perhaps it is as the volunteers at the RCG say, "It is a plant only a collector could love."
I thank Ken Woolfenden for the picture of C. afoliata in the wild and Fiona Woolfenden for asking Joe Cartman what the companion shrubs were likely to be. — LB
[Editor's note: Members can read more about C. afoliata and other New Zealand clematis in the article, "New Zealand Clematis Species" by Fiona Woolfenden, starting on page 67 of Clematis International 2019.]