The perfect clematis for a wet, marshy, boggy site is Clematis crispa. Also known as the Marsh Clematis, C. crispa is comfortable in a mucky environment but will also thrive in a normal garden situation. It will tolerate moderate shade as well as a sunny location. This versatility to site is only one of its positive attributes. Clematis crispa happens to be one of the few clematis with a definite fragrance. The fragrance has been variously described as pleasant and spicy. This clematis is well behaved almost delicate to the touch and fragile in appearance. Being herbaceous in my garden, it becomes dormant in the winter and reappears in the spring. I seldom notice its foliage meandering through an Edgeworthia chrysantha. Then like magic the solitary nodding bluish bells begin to decorate the strapping leaves of the Rice Paper shrub resembling Christmas lights.
I first encountered C. crispa growing in its natural habitat about two miles from my home. A golf course had been constructed on an abandoned farm site. The undisturbed areas near the greens are populated with native flora from the smallest ephemeral trilliums, asarums, Iteas, calicarpa to the gigantic Nyssa sylvatica and Liriodendron tulipifera. It is a typical southeastern United States piedmont native landscape with rolling hills intersected by streams and low lying boggy places. The area where my friend noticed C. crispa was in a small grove of oak and pine trees. There was no shrub layer and the floor of the glade was covered in arisaemas (Jack-in-the-Pulpit) and C. crispa. The ground was very soft and mushy. With permission from the Golf Course management we began our first C. crispa plant rescue. The soft earth was mucky. When we returned to this site in 2005 to rescue more C. crispa, the site has been transformed to a huge compost pile. The two feet of leaves and grass clippings throughout the middle section of the glade smothered all of the arisaemas and clematis into extinction. A true survivor, the C. crispa was struggling along the edges of the glade, competing with the exotic grasses of the golf course. With our latest rescue I have been able to introduce C. crispa to our local Native Plant Botanical Garden and to the meadow trails at Callaway Gardens.
One of the loveliest small clematis, C. crispa has a distinctive shape, which is captured in its name. It has four sepals, which are melded together at the base to form a bell shaped vessel. About half way from the base, the sepals separate and curl back to form a complete circle as it touches itself. The edges of the sepals are ruffled, frilly (crispate) ending in a sharp tip. This graceful bloom comes in shades of blue violet to violet blue on the outside with a distinctive white cross coloration on the inside. The stamens with pale green filaments and pale yellow anthers, protrude ever so slightly from the bell where the sepals begin to reflex, enticing the curious bumblebee. The leaves are composed of 5 to 7 leaflets, which are thin and smooth. The leaflets are ovate to lanceolate. It has been noted that there exists a narrow leaf form named C. crispa var. walteri. But consensus amongst taxonomists is that it cannot be recognized as a separate variety. The variation in the leaflet shape can sometimes be found on the same plant. The narrow leaf form shows no correlation to its geographic distribution. C. crispa with all its charm is variable in coloration and leaves, but quite distinctive in flower shape. It has frilled recurved sepals and white banded cross in the inside center. The seeds are flat with short slender somewhat hairy tails. Carl Linnaeus documented its' existence in Species Plantarum 1: 543, 1753. It was introduced into cultivation in 1726.
In my garden C. crispa blooms from mid April through to October. In the warmer climates of Florida, they can bloom all winter. From my research of the literature they bloom mid summer to mid autumn in cooler climates of Europe. C. crispa may be used to sprawl through perennial beds. They blend effectively with Iris ensata and Iris versicolor. It grows 2 to 2½ metres (6 to 8 feet) in length and can be herbaceous or deciduous semi woody. In Ernest Markham's book 'Clematis' written in 1935, he lists C. crispa as one of the six best herbaceous clematis. He writes, "On account of its frail character the Marsh Clematis should not be associated with coarse-growing shrubs, but should be given some light supports so that its graceful character may be fully seen." In one of the latest books on clematis 'Gardening with Clematis', Linda Beutler lists C. crispa as one of her Top Ten Favorite clematis. It is quite an honor given Linda's personal collection of clematis. She also places C. crispa on her list of 'Ten Companionable Clematis'. She states, "Next to C. texensis, this is the N. American native with the most personality and it is light weight." Its' unique beauty makes C. crispa an ideal choice as a parent in hybridizing. Victoria Matthews, author of 'The International Clematis Register and Checklist 2002', wrote in 'Clematis International 2003', that C. crispa had been used as a parent for eleven of the hybrids listed in the Register. The most famous hybrid with C. crispa as a parent is Clematis 'Betty Corning'. See Previous Clematis of the Month for November 2000 on this web site or click on the URL for a through description of C. 'Betty Corning'.
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