Clematis cirrhosa
Clematis cirrhosa

Clematis of the Month for December 1997

If Clematis cirrhosa and its variants are less familiar than they might be, it is probably because they are often described (correctly) as 'Mediterranean tender evergreens' -- a phrase that can send anxiety coursing through the veins of a more northern gardener. The cirrhosas are indeed Mediterranean -- in their various forms they inhabit high ground from southern Spain and Morocco to Syria -- and they are tender in that they cannot tolerate sub-freezing temperatures for more than very brief periods. But with due shelter from cold and wind they can live long and ornamental lives in more northern latitudes than used to be thought, and they have one attraction that surely makes them worth trying: once started in late autumn, they flower all winter long, and sometimes well into the Spring.

Clematis cirrhosa is typically a strong shrubby climber, capable of reaching 10 metres (30 feet) or more in the wild, but in captivity it seldom grows to such a height. In any case its pliant stems are easy to trim back to a desired compass when bloom is past. (That means, of course, that it can be grown as a conservatory plant, or outdoors in a tub, preferably one that can be moved in response to extreme weather.) The same with the best-known subspecies, C. balearica. These two are alike also in their flowers, nodding, half-open bells -- cream-white to grayish to pale yellow -- their interiors irregularly marked with reddish speckles. They differ mainly in their foliage, cirrhosa having simple, ovate, slightly glossy leaves whereas those of balearica are finely-divided and fernlike. The balearica foliage is more likely to take a turn toward bronze in late winter.

Varying forms of both these clematis may be found in different sectors of the international trade -- for example, an unnamed version of C. balearica with bells that turn up appealingly at the tips -- and there are interesting forms not yet introduced. Those already well known range from the cultivar called 'Wisley' or 'Wisley Cream,' the flowers of which are without specks inside, to Raymond Evison's 'Freckles,' which is so heavily marked with red that the splotches gradually color the outside of the blossoms. Yet to be made available is a handsome cultivar from Alister Keay of New Zealand called 'Lansdowne Gem,' in which the outer surface of the flower is silvery gray and the interior a solid dark red, almost maroon.

One caution: in areas where cirrhosas are close to the limits of their hardiness, the fallow period that they share with many 'evergreens' can last for two or three months, and the naked stems can blacken and appear dead. They are most likely not dead, but sleeping, and will flesh out again and bloom on schedule. But in some gardens this can be unwelcome behaviour, and gardeners who are not yet sure whether a cirrhosa will work in their microclimate may take it as a natural invitation to prune the plant far back, just as they would with a viticella at the end of its flowering year.

Note: this is the second appearance on this site of C. cirrhosa as Clematis of the Month. For the first please select our Previous Clematis of the Month from the menu list on your left.

Brewster Rogerson

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