In October 2018 I was lucky to visit New Zealand with my husband, Ken, and saw many New Zealand species clematis growing in the wild. Our visit was timed to coincide with the optimum flowering period of New Zealand native clematis species - October is spring in the Southern Hemisphere. We were fortunate to go and see C. foetida in its native habitat on the Banks Peninsula, to the south east of Christchurch, South Island with Joe Cartman, New Zealand clematis species expert.
C. foetida was impressive. The flowers were quite noticeable. As we walked into the scrub land on the Banks Peninsular it soon became apparent that there were a lot of C. foetida plants dotted about. C. foetida grew quite tall, and we saw it growing over taller and bigger bushes than C. afoliata.
C. foetida scrambling over a bush with Lake Forsyth in the background
The flowers were distinctly yellow. New Zealand clematis species are unusual in the world of clematis in that the plants are dioecious plants; the plants are either male or female and have either male or female flowers. The male flowers which were 3-4 cm wide with 5 or 6 sepals had lovely central star bosses of stamens which faced upwards or outwards. The female flowers were smaller about 2 cm across with 6 or 7 sepals and the flowers hung down.
Joe Cartman comparing C. foetida male (on the left) and female (on the right) flowers
Joe explained that, for the New Zealand species, the male plants flowered first and then when the pollen was ready on their anthers that was the time when the female plants would flower.
Unfortunately, it was not a sunny day so the plants did not smell. They should have a sweet smell. Foetida means scented, not necessarily a bad scent.
A few days later we visited the Native Plants area of the Botanic Gardens in Christchurch and saw Clematis foetida flowering at the tops of the trees, which made it quite difficult to see them from the ground. As always with clematis it pays to look upwards! In the undergrowth under the trees where the plants were growing, we found thick stems disappearing upwards into the tree canopy which we assumed were the clematis stems.
C. foetida covering the top of a tree
Later in our trip we saw C. foetida growing in the Rakaia Gorge between Staveley and Springfield, inland, west of Christchurch. We parked in the car park on the western side of the Rakaia Gorge and then walked down a track through the woods and under the road which led onto an island. We saw several C. foetida plants but growing much taller than those on the Banks Peninsula. Some of the plants were flowering at 3 meters high. As it was a sunny day we finally got to smell their scent. I thought that the flowers smelt of almonds while Ken said citrus.
C. foetida growing in tree, flowers are cream/yellow
You may ask if you can grow C. foetida in the Northern Hemisphere. Good drainage appears to be essential and for some native New Zealand species such as C. foetida, a sheltered, warm, dry, sunny spot is recommended.
If you are interested in other native New Zealand clematis species and a member of the Society, please see "Clematis International 2019" for more information.
My thanks to Ken Woolfenden, International Clematis Society Editor, for permission to reprint parts of an article published in "Clematis International 2019".
The best book describing Clematis foetida in detail is Magnus Johnson’s "The Genus Clematis", page 165.
Roy Nunn gives us the benefit of his experience growing New Zealand species in the UK in "Clematis International 2000".