What is Clematis?

Britt Archer

Clematis is a flower that is known by many names. In some parts of the world it is known as traveler's joy, in others it is called old man's beard. Clematis plants come in as many shapes as it has names. Some varieties of the plant are shrub-like and resemble herbs, and a great number are climbing vines. Whatever name it is known by and whatever form it takes, the clematis is a staple in many gardens.

Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

There are almost 300 recognized varieties of the genus Clematis, with thousands more unofficial hybrids and specializations among the plants. For ease of recognition and care, the many types of Clematis are often divided into three categories, based on when the plants should be pruned. Group A flowers in early spring and produces mainly small flowers. Group B flowers in early summer and consists mainly of hybrids with large blooms. Group C develops its flowers late in summer and into early fall and is made up almost exclusively of vines.

Despite the differences in bloom time, there are some similarities between Clematis varieties. Most plants of this type prefer non-acidic soils, such as landscapes rich in limestone. Most types prefer full sun with only a small amount of shade, with the exception of some hybrids, which may fade in direct sunlight. Also, they perform best when their roots are kept cool and shaded, as with mulch. Some gardeners consider Clematis tricky to grow, as the stalks are delicate and require good airflow to keep them healthy. While the vine varieties like to climb, Clematis do not thrive when placed in an area where they must vie for nutrients with tree roots.

Clematis are remarkable plants in that they can survive for about 25 years if cared for correctly. They may produce as many as 100 or more blooms per season, and can grow to a height of 30 feet (9.1 m), but are often in the 6 to 8 foot (1.8 to 2.4 m) range. The flowers often have fragrant blooms, such as the sweet autumn Clematis. Other types of plant hybrids are not as fragrant as their undiluted counterparts, but Clematis hybrids produce blooms that are just as aromatic as their non-hybrid counterparts.

The colors of Clematis can vary widely from purple, blue, pink, red, white and any combination in between, though a light blue color is particularly common, and the deep purple jackmanii is quite popular. The name Clematis comes from the Greek word for "climbing vine" and was originally used to describe the periwinkle plant and several other very different plants. The association with periwinkle has stuck, however, and that is the color name that is most often ascribed to Clematis plants. It should be noted that the Clematis is actually a member of the buttercup family and has no relation to the periwinkle plant, which is a member of the dog bane family.

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