[Editor's note: Technology advances have allowed me to replace the original photo with the higher quality pair below, taken by Fiona Woolfenden]
By the end of this month, many a householder will be seeing first bloom on the beautiful climber familiarly called 'the evergreen clematis'. There are of course other evergreen clematis, but C. armandii is by far the best known and most requested of all, to the point where nurseries and garden centers often cannot get enough to keep up with the demand. All through February, growers who have brought their infant plants through the winter in frost-free houses will be sending them out, some already beginning to bloom and turn people's heads with their wonderful fragrance.
This Chinese species and its cultivars are strong climbers, from 15' to 30' (4.5 to 9 metres) depending on their situation, and so easy to train horizontally that they have become a favorite choice for running along the eaves of a roof. Of all familiar clematis this is the first to flower in the Spring, bearing 3" white or creamy- to pinkish-white blossoms in clusters, usually paired along the stems and in bunches at the ends. For a month or more, the impression is one of great abundance, the more so if the plant is in a reasonably protected position. But this is one clematis in which the foliage may count for at least as much as the flowers, by reason of its long-lasting ornamental value. The leaves vary somewhat from one cultivar to another, but usually consist of three long, tough-textured leaflets of a shiny deep green with great staying power. (The youngest growth may be bronzy in both stem and leaf.)
Until fairly recently there were two principal cultivars, 'Apple Blossom' and 'Snowdrift,' distinguished mainly by the fact that flowers of 'Snowdrift' were white and those of 'Apple Blossom' were flushed with pink. These are still the two most familiar labels, but the names have met with some drifting over the years. Both now cover some wide variations. The common 'Snowdrift' in the U.S., for example, has a star-shaped flower with more narrow sepals than the English one. 'Apple Blossom' show up in different markets with very different infusions of pink, or with pink only in the bud --- as with the plant in our photograph, where the bud in the middle clearly says 'Apple Blossom.' The likeliest explanation is that, innocently or not, one or more growers in time past began meeting the demand for these plants by propagating them from their seedlings rather than from cuttings, and sending these out under the original name. This would naturally introduce some variation, and a few variant forms have quietly established themselves, though without distinguishing names of their own. The consolation, if one is needed, is that the most widely available forms, whatever the details of their lineage, are all capable plants and good in their kind.
Since they bear their flowers on the year-old wood, the best time for pruning is just after the Spring bloom is over. Usually it is a simple matter of clearing away frayed ends and unwanted portions of the vine. But this should not be neglected, for plants that go along untended for several years can develop thatching that is hard to remove. Also, since C. armandii tends to put all its energy into upward growth and leave its lower reaches bare after a few seasons, a gardener who sees this as impending trouble might try to find at least one stem that can be cut far back, so as to promote new growth at a lower level.