Is Flowering Clematis Considered a Vine or a Shrub?

Thinking of planting some clematis in your garden, but aren't sure if it's considered a vine or a shrub? Understanding the plant class that clematis falls into is important when determining where and how to plant it. In this article, gardening expert Liessa Bowen examines if flowering clematis is considered a vine or a shrub.

Purple flowering clematis is a vine growing against the fence with yellow stamens on the center of the blooms.

Clematis is the genus of a large group of flowering plants in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). There are over 250 species of Clematis with many more varieties. They are a well-loved garden plant, known for their prolific displays of beautiful showy flowers. Sometimes you’ll see them grown as vines, but occasionally you’ll see them also grown as shrubs.

Clematis can be grown in both cold and warm climates, from zones 3 through 9. They are also extremely versatile, which is why they can take on different growth profiles. Most do well in full sun, but also appreciate some afternoon shade.

Clematis commonly has woody stems, although some are herbaceous. Many are vigorous climbers, yet some stay fairly compact without clinging to a support structure. They are a familiar sight climbing up trellises or cascading over a wall. Their flowers are unmistakable, and many varieties will bloom from early spring through late fall.

With such a wide variety of forms, it can be confusing to try to classify this plant into a single specific category. So is a Clematis considered a vine or a shrub?

The Short Answer

Clematis are mostly considered woody deciduous perennial vines. A few are herbaceous perennials which die back completely each winter. And there are a few varieties that are evergreen perennials. Most  varieties have characteristics of being a “vine” rather than a “shrub.” There are, however, a few varieties of Clematis that can qualify as perennial shrubs. So the short answer is, depending on the specific variety, it can be considered a vine or a shrub.

The Long Answer

Close-up of many purple flowers in a summer sunny garden. The flowers are large, bright dark pink, open, solitary, star-shaped, up to 15 cm or more in diameter, with 6 sepals with a groove in the middle. Stamens with yellow anthers on white filaments. The leaves are compound, with 5-7 oblong-ovate entire leaflets with a purple tinge at the tips.
There are many types of clematis, most of which are climbing vines, others have shrub-like growth habits.

There is an amazing diversity of Clematis. They range widely in size, growth form, and flower attributes. Most varieties are deciduous, while other are evergreen. Foliage varies from simple, smooth, lance-like leaves to delicate, frilly, deeply lobed leaves.

Most Clematis are climbing vines, but others creep along the ground, and a few even have upright shrub-like growth habits. They range in size from a few feet to over 30 feet in length. There are some varieties that are well-adapted to cold climates, while others are hardy only in warmer climate zones.

Clematis are perhaps best known for their large, colorful, showy flowers, but there are many varieties with smaller white blooms. Flowers can be large and brightly colored, small and white, drooping and bell-like, shaped like a broad-petaled disk, or delicate and shar-shaped. There are varieties that will bloom during virtually any season of the year.

With so much diversity within a single genus of flowering plants, it’s not surprising that they can’t all truly be grouped into a few simple categories. Perhaps the best way to answer the question about whether a Clematis is considered a vine or a shrub is to look at some definitions.

Vining Plant

A vine is a climbing, creeping, or sprawling plant. Vine stems typically seeks support by twining or extending tendrils, although many vines also creep along the ground and have no tendrils. Many vines are herbaceous, although some have woody stems. Vines can be thin-stemmed and diminutive, less than 1 foot long, while others can develop massive stems and grow to 30 feet or more in length.

Shrub Plant

A shrub is a perennial woody plant. It differs from a tree in that it is shorter in stature, and tends to have a great abundance of smaller branching stems. Many shrubs are deciduous and lose their leaves each winter, but some shrubs are evergreen.

Vining Varieties

Close-up of many blooming Clematis "jackmani" flowers in a summer sunny garden. The flowers are large, bright purple in color, open, solitary, star-shaped, up to 15 cm or more in diameter, with 5 sepals with a groove in the middle. Stamens with yellow anthers on white filaments. Tepals 4-6 pieces, up to 6 cm long, broadly obovate, pubescent on the outside.
Clematis “jackmani” produce magnificent large flowers and are excellent climbers.

This group are the most familiar varieties that people typically associate with the genus. These plants are excellent climbers and will readily grow up a trellis or arbor, along a fence or wall, or even up into a nearby tree or bush.

There is a tremendous variety of climbing Clematis; some are evergreen while others are deciduous, some vines stay small while others grow very long, but they are all climbers with showy flowers.

Some vining varieties are very vigorous growers, so be sure to give these plenty of space. You should also learn which pruning group your vining Clematis belongs to. Proper pruning will help keep them in top condition and will help them produce the most flowers.

Climbing Varieties:

Non-climbing Varieties

Close-up of a densely flowering non-clinging vine Clematis recta surrounded by green leaves. Showy white small flowers consist of 5-6 thin oblong petals and contain many long stamens. The leaves are compound, with 5-7 oblong-ovate entire leaflets, dull green. The background is blurry.
Clematis recta produce many small snow-white flowers on vines that spread along the ground.

There are other varieties of Clematis that are vine-like, but do not generally climb or cling to a support. These plants exhibit vine-like growth in that they trail along the ground, but do not have a habit of clinging and climbing up a structure.

They will typically climb only when specifically trained to do so. There are several non-clinging varieties which may be either herbaceous perennials or woody, deciduous or evergreen.

Non-clinging Varieties:

  • Clematis x durandii
  • Clematis recta
  • Clematis “Sapphire Indigo”

Shrub-like Varieties

Close-up of a flowering clematis heracleifolia surrounded by green trifoliate leaves, in full sun in a summer garden. Small blue fragrant tubular flowers grow in groups at the tips of the stems. Long white stamens with yellow tips stick out from the middle of the flowers. The background is blurry.
There are several varieties that grow with more shrub-like characteristics.

While most Clematis are clearly vines, there are a few that grow with very shrub-like characteristics. These shrub-like varieties generally stay small in stature and grow upright rather than trailing.

They also tend to be herbaceous perennials, so they die back completely each winter and regrow each spring from the root base. They typically grow into bushy mounds, rather than clinging or climbing. Taller varieties may need to be staked if they are to maintain a bushy appearance.

Shrub-like Varieties:

  • Clematis heracleifolia
  • Clematis fremontii
  • Clematis integrifolia

Understanding Your Clematis Type

Close-up of a purplish pink clematis flower growing on vines surrounded by light green foliage. The flowers are large, purple-pink, open, solitary, star-shaped, up to 15 cm or more in diameter, with 6 sepals with a groove in the middle. Stamens with yellow anthers on whitish-pink filaments. The vineclimbs a brick wall in direct sunlight.
Understanding the type of clematis you have will help you determine where to plant them.

It’s very helpful to know what type of Clematis you have. Knowing if you have a climbing vine, a non-climbing vine, or a shrub-like plant will help you determine where to place it in your landscape. You should also know whether or not you need to provide support, and how large your support structure needs to be.

It’s also useful to know your plant’s growth habits so you know if, when, and how to prune your plants. Pruning is essential for some varieties to generate an annual profusion of blooms.

But other varieties, such as vines that produce flowers only on old wood, or herbaceous perennial shrubs, require little or no pruning, other than routine maintenance to remove dead plant materials.

If you are planning a garden or landscape design and considering a Clematis, you can plan for the specific variety you want. Be sure to choose a variety that suits your specific needs. If you want a flowering arbor, you should consider a vigorous vining variety.

However, if you want a plant nestled in your perennial garden, choose a smaller shrubby variety. If you want to grow Clematis in a container, a smaller non-clinging variety might be an ideal choice.

Final Thoughts

It is challenging to know how to classify a very diverse group of plants, such as Clematis. While most Clematis clearly qualify as vines that happily climb a nearby trellis, some varieties are non-climbing herbaceous perennial shrubs.

So there really is no “one size fits all” category for Clematis. The one thing they do all have in common is the thing that makes them so popular. They have irresistible flowers that bloom readily and make a showy addition to your garden arrangement.

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