Clematis ranunculoides or Clematis yuanjiangensis?
Probably Clematis yuanjiangensis©M.Brown

Clematis of the Month for December 2002

with many thanks for the photos to Mike Brown

[Editor's note: After a query in October 2021 from one of our members, this Clematis of the Month has been reviewed by several of our most experienced and knowledgeable clematarians.

It is now believed that the clematis that Brewster described, and which he had been led to believe was C. ranunculoides, was in fact C. yuanjiangensis. Given the date of this article, this is perhaps not so surprising. These species clematis were not commonly known nor grown then, even by many clematis enthusiasts.

A full explanation, along with some additional photos, can be found here at the end of Brewster's description.]

Clematis ranunculoides is not one of the more celebrated members of the genus, but in one respect it may be a little too well-known. The plant has been attended all too often with disappointment of one sort or another. It is in the first place hard if not impossible to find in the trade, though in its native parts of China it isn't unduly rare. For most of us that means it has to be raised from seed, and even the seed may not always be easy to come by. But that is hardly the worst of it. Once germinated, the seedlings may take off promisingly and do well, even to producing a modest bloom the first year. But the tales of horror begin at about that point. Many a capable gardener has found that the plant did not reappear, having dropped off during the winter, or, if it did survive, it might not perform any better the second time around. The track record of the species in cultivation simply hasn't been full enough yet for us to know exactly how to cater for it, given the great variety of our garden sites.

Well, then, why bother with it? Why feature it as a Clematis of the Month?

The all-sufficing answer is that when C. ranunculoides is good it is very, very good. In fact, for a plant that is not likely to grow as tall as six feet (2m) and usually tops out well below that, it is not merely distinctive, but oddly important-looking. One learns to watch it as if it were about to do something momentous. And when it finally turns on full power in bloom, it can be surprisingly beautiful.

Though some plants of C. ranunculoides have been known to climb, most are herbaceous erect, and hence bear all their flowers on new wood. For the greater part of the growing season their garden identity is that of a foliage plant. Strong purplish-red stalks jut out in opposing pairs from the base and along the central stem, bearing leaves divided variously into as many as five coarse-toothed leaflets of a fairly dark green, some of them faintly edged in bronze. The leaflets often coil and twist as they grow, and they tend to darken with age, so the late foliage that surrounds the bloom is lighter by comparison and more delicate.

Clematis ranunculoides©M.BrownFairly late in the year (though individual gardeners report it happens earlier with them) flowerbuds begin to appear in the upper axils, sometimes singly, sometimes in groups of two or three, looking at first like small, flat rosebuds. These gradually develop short stems, usually with a crook in them, so that except for an occasional rebel the flowers will usually nod to some degree. The bud, however, is such an attraction that one is in no tremendous hurry to see it break open. It is tear-drop shaped and noticeably ribbed, suggesting a Chinese paper lantern, and colourful enough to play off well against the rather craggy-looking young foliage and its dark reddish stems. When it opens at last, the flower is an uniquely-shaped bell, broad-based, no more than an inch across (3 cm), and remarkably good at drawing the eye. Its four sepals, deeply ribbed and often slightly hairy inside or out, spread wide and start recurving at the tips, showing a prominent tuft of stamens. (Botanical accounts of the stamens vary, but perhaps it will suffice to say that in casual garden inspection they appear pale yellow on top and somewhat pink and downy below.) On different specimens the bell can be a light, fresh pink, some shade of lavender, or even purplish red. Whatever the colour, in a full bloom those bells are deliciously appealing, and no one is likely to forget them.

So the fact is, no matter how hard it may be to arrive at that result, or how many gardeners are tempted to give up with the conviction that fate is against them, plant-lovers will go on hunting for the species and raising it from seed, experimenting to find out what it needs over time—full sun in most situations, and unimpeded drainage?—and feeling huge satisfaction when they see their treasured specimen break ground in the Spring. Not to mention when it gets around to delivering its flower show. The harder it is, of course, the more splendid is the victory.

To fill in some of the formal background: the species belongs to a section of the genus called Connatae, a large group of Asian and African clematis that includes such relatives as C. connata itself, C. lasiandra, and C. rehderiana (which we featured in an earlier Clematis of the Month). Though long familiar to botanists, most of these Connatae have yet to make a wide appearance in Western gardens, largely because gardeners have had little or no access to them, do not know many of them even by name, and so are unlikely to mount any campaigns on their behalf. That has been the case with C. ranunculoides, though there are signs lately that it may be close to winning a foothold in the trade.

Brewster Rogerson Brewster Rogerson

Return to top of page

[Editor's note: One of our members received seeds of C. ranunculoides. Comparing the plants and flowers with the description in the December 2002 Clematis of the Month by Brewster Rogerson, he found significant differences. He asked Ton Hannink for his opinion.

Ton Hannink considered the evidence and consulted Christopher Grey-Wilson's book, "Clematis The Genus", published in 2000. Ton also has personal experience of growing C. ranunculoides, having received a plant from a Chinese botanist. On opposing pages of C Grey-Wilson's book there are photos and descriptions of C. ranunculoides and C. yuanjiangensis. Ton's plant was the same as the C. ranunculoides in Christopher Grey-Wilson's book. In Ton's opinion, the plant which Brewster described, along with the photos, is in fact C. yuanjiangensis.

Ton cites the following characteristics as being key:-
very thick stems,
blue green leaves,
very red flowers,
the flower form,
not a climber.

Ton has also grown C. yuanjiangensis from seed and says that whilst it is clearly related to C. ranunculoides, it is different. Brewster's description is much closer to C. yuanjiangensis.

My thanks to Linda Beutler who has provided the following information of the source of Brewster's plants. She says that according to the Rogerson Clematis Collection (RCC) comprehensive accessions list, and their archive of Brewster's lists of clematis that pre-date the start of the accessions list, he got his first plant of C. ranunculoides from Diana Reeck in 1998. It lived three years. It was replaced in 2002 and this one lived until December 2006. The next spring, Diana brought the RCC her last specimen and said she was out of the China seed, and had not had viable seed from any generation from the Chinese source. It is this last specimen that is pictured below in 2008. Unfortunately it did not return from dormancy in the spring of 2009. Perhaps taking pictures of it was the downfall?

One wonders whether Brewster wasn't aware of the differences between the two species since he would have had no experience of C. yuanjiangensis and so would have assumed natural variation.

Finally, Mike Brown, who provided the photos for the 2002 Clematis of the Month says that, after reading Grey-Wilson, he believes the photo at the beginning of this Clematis of the Month, which was taken in a garden in Japan, is C. yuanjiangensis. The other photo, which is of a plant that came from a nursery in the Netherlands, is probably C. ranunculoides.

My thanks to Linda Beutler, Mike Brown, Mike Miller and especially Ton Hannink, for bringing this to my attention and providing an answer.

During this investigation I have received several photos of true C. ranunculoides, a selection of which follow. My thanks to all contributors.

Finally, there is an excellent article in "Clematis International 2009" by Ton Hannink, "Clematis ranunculoides" starting on page 130.]

C. ranunculoides at Gutmann's Nursery in October 2005©Linda Beutler C. ranunculoides at Gutmann's Nursery in October 2005©Linda Beutler

C. ranunculoides at Gutmann's Nursery in October 2005, shortly before it was moved to Luscher Farm. An unwieldy specimen,
it was moved very successfully by the moving team. You may be able to see that the plant is tied all the way up to support it.

C. ranunculoides in the Rogerson Clematis Collection, the last specimen, taken in 2008.©Linda Beutler

C. ranunculoides in the Rogerson Clematis Collection, the last specimen, taken in 2008.
Notice how heavy the stem is, also the exterior texture of the sepals.

Beautiful C. ranunculoides, flowering mid to late November 2011©Mike Brown Beautiful C. ranunculoides, flowering mid to late November 2011©Mike Brown

Beautiful C. ranunculoides, flowering mid to late November 2011 for Mike Brown in an unheated greenhouse

Return to Homepage

@ K.Woolfenden