Clematis urticifolia

Clematis of the Month for January 2018

described by Linda Beutler, Curator, Rogerson Clematis Collection

C. urticifolia©Linda Beutler

Although the International Clematis Society has never visited South Korea—thus there has been no occasion for this month's contributor to see Clematis urticifolia in the wild—perhaps the next best thing was to have met it growing in the woodland garden of David and Ginger Stark (outside Eugene, Oregon), whilst in the company of modern plant explorers Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones. In late June 2008, as part of the Pacific Northwest's Hardy Plant Study Weekend series, it was my privilege to be on the lecture bill-of-fare with the Wynn-Joneses. They have botanized throughout South Korea, and were due to give an illustrated talk on their latest expedition the next day.

C. urticifolia©Linda BeutlerThe Starks were well known for their shade garden, arrayed under a stand of native while oak (Quercus garryana). For most visitors the big draw was the collection of Arisaema, but at the point where a coarse-leafed shrub (1 m wide and 1.5 m tall) that could only be a clematis defined the curve of a pathway, I will admit to a giving little yelp of glee when I got a look at the flowers. They were just opening. Unlike the other shrubby clematis, this species holds its flowers predominantly upright, and in the dappled light they were quite vividly blue. The Starks said they believed it to be C. urticifolia, procured as seed from an informal Asian plant enthusiasts' exchange. How lucky to have only to grab Bleddyn by the sleeve for a confirmation. He said there was a bigger one further along the way!

My fellow tourists moved on, but my camera stayed focused on this specimen. The leaves were uniformly somewhat smaller than either C. heracleifolia or tubulosa, but were of the same surface coarseness and three-leaflet configuration. The color was a rich, rather darker green. The flowers were in tight threesomes at the axels on either side of the ribbed stems, for the top 0.3 to 0.5 m of the stems. Each blossom was at most 2.5 cm long (more often 1-2 cm long).

From conversations with him, I knew Brewster had never had this species in his collection. Nothing thrilled me more than to present him with something new, and when I saw a pup emerging through the leaf mould a meter away, Ginger was led away for a private word. She promised, since she had an embarrassment of riches, that if they ever dug up the sucker, it would be Brewster's.

Much to my delight, the following Thursday after the event, up rolled Ginger and David Stark to the then very young Rogerson Clematis Garden (RCG). They were so honored to have something to contribute to Brewster's collection—having met him years before when he had performed at a Study Weekend on the Oregon coast—that they dug the pup and in doing so, found a second. Quite marvelously, we were presented with two Clematis urticifolia infants! However, their largess did not end there.

C. urticifolia©Linda BeutlerIn 2010 David took a rather serious fall in the garden, and it was with great regret that he and Ginger decided to sell. The buyers were not gardeners. The Arisaema collection was passed along to Ernie and Marietta O'Byrne. Ginger and David insisted noted plantsman Roger Gossler dig up both of their specimens of Clematis urticifolia and deliver them to the RCG. Brewster happened to be at the garden with me when Roger arrived unannounced with the two gigantic pots. The pictures here are of one of the original infants now established under a Cornus florida in Bed 11 of the Heirloom Garden. (C. urticifolia was brought into cultivation in 1936, not an antique yet but well on its way.)

Of the shrubby clematis at the Rogerson Clematis Garden, Clematis urticifolia has proved the least willing to adapt to full sun, even with ample water. All of our specimens are under deciduous shade. The blooming time is from late June to mid-August. The green seed is quick to drop, so saving seed requires enrobing the stems in mesh bags once blooming stops. Magnus Johnson likened the flower shape to "antique pitchers", but urn-shaped is the traditional description. He put the interior color at "Moorish-blue" and the exterior at "hyacinth blue". The peduncles on our specimens are quite short (2 cm at most), but it is possible for them to be up to 12 cm long. In the autumn we cut off what has bloomed, and in the spring, when new buds are clearly emerging, we cut down into the wood to the strongest pair.

In Japan, there exists a herbarium specimen of Clematis urticifolia f. rosea NAKAI, with pink to rose-colored flowers, but no living plant of this form is known. Reason enough to send Bleddyn and Sue back to South Korea, or better yet, go ourselves!

Brewster was not given to doing anything like a happy dance, but his response to the original gift of two 1-litre pups of Clematis urticifolia may best be described as understated rapture without fear of him spinning in his grave.

Linda Beutler Linda Beutler

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