CLEMATIS A NEW LOOK AT A POLULAR, OLD GENUS.
I have a thug in one of my borders. It's a course and woody thing, thick and gnarled already at the crown, though at a meager four years, it's barely out of infancy. I cut it almost to the heartwood every spring, but by midsummer, it has always scrambled fifteen feet in each direction. It explores the ground around it with an avid curiosity, thrusting soft-but-quickly-hardening, wanton tendrils into every space it finds. It would swamp demure and delicate plants were they to grow along its path. Fortunately, all its neighbors were selected because they are sturdy in their own right. Still, it insinuates its way around them, finding every nook and cranny and filling it with big, rough, midnight-dark and saw-toothed leaves.
It's not a weed, in spite of all its rampant growth and, truth be told, I would not be without it. By late August, it has transformed itself into a jewel. Covered with thousands of opalescent blossoms, each no more than an inch across, it spills out of the confines of the border. With the same ebullience with which it thrust its way betwixt them, it now spangles its neighbors' feet with diadems. It is a frill of lacy petticoat exposed, Moulin Rouge fashion, beneath the chocolate skirts of Eupatorium rugosum. It is the sea-foam crest, which breaks beneath an arched wave of Kniphophia "Percy's Pride." It pours over a wall in frothy patches like a head of beer dripping slowly down the side of a glass. Everywhere the sun has ever shone upon its rambling, it now sports airy panicles of blossom. And, oh what flowers! They are not-quite-white and not-quite-blue, but somewhere in between: little crosses with four petals each and a swarm of silver stamens bursting joyfully from the center. They are as delicate as the plant is course and they seem to last forever. They enter the stage along with Percy's gleaming peridot spires and the ivorine bells of a perfumed trumpet lily, but they're just as sparkling as that first day at the tail end of September, by which time even Eupatorium's crown of spilled cream has begun to spoil.
The identity of this indispensable, yet ugly duckling, which eventually turns into a stunning, silver swan, will probably come as a surprise. It is, in fact, a Clematis. To be precise, it is Clematis jouiniana "Mrs. Robert Brydon."
It is nothing like the big-flowered beauties with which we're all familiar. For one, it doesn't climb. "Mrs. Robert Brydon" is one of the newly popularized "herbaceous" varieties, which are beginning to take American gardens by storm. There's nothing of the fine, delicate-stemmed, support-me-lest-I-tumble, floppiness about her that seems to plague other non-vining members of the species. She's a ground hugger, tried and true. A romping, rambunctious, rough-and-tumble plant, her branches are firm, woody and at least a quarter of an inch in diameter. Her leaves are large and dull, dark green, tri-partite with serrated edges and a rough, almost abrasive texture. There's a brooding coolness about them, which imparts a mysterious yet solid presence to the areas through which she travels. This is a wonderful attribute. It lends her section of the border a strong foundation, a fluid continuity and a dark, firm ground against which shorter flowering plants can show off their own finery. To call her a good "knitter" is mere understatement. Coarse as she may be, she still has good breeding. She is content, for much of the year, to play quite quietly, not attracting attention. Instead, she permits her companions to steal the spotlight and behaves, herself, like a studious example of the old, Victorian epithet "seen and not heard." When it is her turn to shine, however, she will dress to the hilt. Like every Victorian lady of quality, she will don her frilliest finery, curtsy politely, and dance rings around her companions until frost rings down the curtain.
In addition to all of these attributes, "Mrs. Robert Brydon" is easy to grow. She's unfussy as to soil type or quality, although, like most Clematis she does prefer a cool root run. I have her in a relatively sandy loam with enough organic material to hold moisture and stay cool. She receives about four hours of morning sun in my garden, none in the afternoon, and might flower more prolifically were she to get more. Her cousin, Clematis jouiniana "Praecox," however, planted on the opposite, dryer, warmer, side of my garden, receives full sun and puts on the same performance, so the amount of sunlight may not make much difference. If she's planted in poor soil, she'll need fertilizing early in the season, and again, a couple of weeks before flowering. Use an all purpose fertilizer, not too high in nitrogen --- she produces leaves a plenty without added incentive. In a good soil, don't bother to feed her. She's simple. She's vigorous. She's fantastic!
So, where are we likely to find her? Unfortunately, local nurseries had not, as of last year, discovered this garden gem. Mail order sources are most reliable. Try Heronswood (http://www.heronswood.com/) in Kingston Washington, phone 360-297-4172. They are likely to have either Clematis jouiniana "Mrs. Robert Brydon" or Clematis jouini
ana "Praecox" but not both. There is, in fact, to my eyes, very little difference between the two. The flowers of Praecox are a slightly more intense blue but that distinction is difficult to assess with plants at opposite ends of the garden. They are basically indistinguishable and either one will be an asset to the garden.