How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Clematis Flowers
Thinking of adding some clematis flowers to your garden, but aren't sure where to start? These beautiful flowers can liven up any garden space with their bright colors. In this article, gardening expert Madison Moulton walks you through every step needed to successfully plant, grow, and care for clematis flowers.
When it comes to vining flowering plants, clematis is one of the first that comes to mind. With its stunning flowers and hundreds of varieties, it’s not hard to understand why. Clematis is often considered the queen of the flowering vine world, especially during the blooming season where their elegant, paper-like flowers are on full display.
There are hundreds of clematis varieties with their own quirks and characteristics. Different species also show off differences in their flowers. Some species have quaint flowers, like Clematis integrifolia, while others have flowers as large as dinner plates (Clematis lanuginosa comes to mind).
Clematis’ popularity goes far beyond its ability to catch the eyes of passers-by, extending to its ability to pair with a plethora of different plants. It fairs perfectly fine with most types of bedding plants, from annuals to perennial shrubs and even trees. Roses and clematis make a classic pairing, but it’s versatile enough for you to truly make use of your creative gardening flair.
Different varieties have slightly different needs, but otherwise, clematis is an easy vining plant to care for. Whether you’re a newbie gardener wanting some excitement, or a seasoned green thumb needing to expand their plant selection, clematis is the plant for you.
Clematis Plant Overview
Japan and China
Winter to Late Summer
Full Sun to Partial Shade
Several Feet if Supported
Aphids, Slugs, and Rabbits
Alomst Any Plant
Don’t Plant With
No Real Limitations
Clematis is a very large group of vining plants belonging to the buttercup family. In history across China and Japan, this gorgeous flowering plant was predominantly used for medicine. The leaves of the plant were used in herbal teas to soothe sore throats. Other varieties were found in other parts of the world and favored for their ornamental flair.
The large flowering clematis, C. patens, was introduced to Europe in the early 1800s by Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold, a German traveler, physician, and botanist. He is credited with introducing Western medicine in Japan. Many Chinese species were introduced to Japan during this time and later made their way into Europe, the most prominent being the wild clematis, Clematis florida.
Following its arrival in Europe, clematis gained several meanings, especially during the Victorian era, when floriography (the language of flowers) regained traction. The flower then came to symbolize poverty as well as mental beauty.
Cultivation spread across the continent. Propagating different species and creating hybrids was of top priority. Larger varieties were particularly popular during the Victorian era. However, the disease which clematis is prone to, clematis wilt, destroyed commercial stocks. Propagation of these larger varieties was only possible again after World War II.
There are now hundreds of different species, varieties, and cultivars of clematis, each sporting unique flair and interesting names. Leather flowers refer to clematis with fleshy petals, Old Man’s Beard is known for its wrinkled-looking white flowers. Traveler’s Joy is the common name used in England for their native variety C. vitalba.
Clematises have snuck their way into gardens since the 17th century. They can now be spotted sprawling over fences and slopes and spreading across drains and even riverbeds. This flower has become a common household garden plant due to its ability to scale buildings, walls, and structures. This versatile plant is also commonly trained to spread horizontally to create a spectacular ground cover.
Although these plants are highly prized and sought after, the wild clematis in particular (C. vitalba) is an invasive plant in some areas. This species is native to England, and if left unchecked, quickly takes over spaces, suffocating plants in its wake.
Wild clematis became a household name in 2018, not because of its beauty, but rather its invasiveness and devastation in Santa Cruz. Clematis plants wrapped their way around trees in the San Vicente Redwoods, killing them off and leaving acres of woodland filled with this non-native plant.
This Clematis’s aggressive nature is a risk throughout North America, wreaking havoc in the wild by killing off plants and in suburbs by climbing and pulling down telephone poles.
So long as gardeners maintain and control their Clematis, however, it shouldn’t get to the point of destroying suburban telephone poles. But it’s always best to choose a variety that will not pose a threat to your surrounding environment.
Due to its long history of propagation, particularly during the Victorian age, several cultivars aren’t invasive in the United States. Gold clematis, C. tangutica, is the most popular choice.
Clematis is most commonly propagated by cuttings. This method is considered the easiest way to propagate this plant and the most reliable for home gardeners. There are other methods, including layering and propagating by seed. The latter is possibly the most difficult propagation method when it comes to clematis, with no guarantee of success.
Propagating From Cuttings
Stem cuttings are the go-to method when propagating, as it’s a super quick and easy way to start or increase your clematis stock. Clematis is propagated by softwood cutting, a simple method used for plenty of plants, including amsonias.
This aptly named method takes place during the softwood stage of their growth. This stage is easily identifiable by the plant’s bare, bright green shoots. You’ll more than likely find the most viable stems from the mid-section of the plant.
When the clematis is at this softwood stage, gently cut just below a leaf node using a sharp, clean knife. The stem should be at least four inches long. Next, remove any lower growing leaves from the bottom half of the cutting. To improve their chance of roots, dip the bottom end of the cutting into rooting hormone powder. This little trick stimulates growth and protects the cutting from disease.
Fill a small container with moistening propagating mix. A well-draining material like coconut coir and sand works well, but perlite and vermiculite are also options. Gently press and firm clematis cuttings into the soil and water thoroughly.
Once the water has completely drained, cover the container with a plastic bag to replicate a greenhouse environment. Be sure to check on your cuttings regularly for new growth. Gently pull on your cutting after several weeks. If you feel any resistance, you know roots have grown.
Clematis cuttings planted in soil can take as long as three months to root. Thereafter, they can be transplanted into the ground.
Propagation From Seeds
Due to the plethora of cultivars and hybrids, clematis propagated from seed will probably not look anything like the parent plant. That’s not the only downside to this method though. Propagating from seeds is the most time-consuming and doesn’t guarantee success. Clematis seeds take years to germinate and require plenty of TLC.
If you’re willing to take on the challenging process, harvest seeds when the seed pods dry out, leaving the seeds exposed.
Next, pour seed starting mix into a tray and water thoroughly. Gently press your seeds into the soil and cover them with a fine layer of potting mix or sand and water again, leaving the soil moist.
Now, cover the tray with a plastic bag to increase temperature and humidity, replicating a greenhouse environment. Place the covered tray in a cool shady spot in your home with temperatures averaging 65-75F (a basement will do).
Clematis seeds require cold treatment (or stratification) to germinate. Many perennials go through this natural process, which isn’t difficult to replicate. Simply place your tray of seeds outside during winter, or in the coldest room in your house.
Caring for your seeds while you wait for them to germinate, which can take anywhere from 12-36 months, is critical. Ensure the potting mix always remains moist. Allow the seeds to breathe a few hours a day by removing the plastic bag. This stops too much moisture from building up, preventing rot.
There are two sets of leaves to keep an eye out for, the ‘seed leaves’ and the ‘true leaves’. The seed leaves appear first, signaling propagation success. When they arrive, remove the plastic covering from the tray. The true leaves come in shortly after, signaling the time to plant your seeds outside.
Propagating by Layering
Propagation by layering is also an option often used for vining plants. There are several layering techniques, but each works by forcing the plant to grow roots along its stem and then cutting the new rotted system from the parent plant.
Clematis propagates best with the serpentine layering method, which requires you to bury and secure multiple sections of a stem undersoil and wait for roots to develop. You can either bury these sections underground or use multiple pots that are buried around the base. Using pots allows you to use more suitable soil to stimulate root growth.
First, using a sharp knife, gently slice down the middle of the stem, between two leaf nodes. The cut should be about one inch. Next, place a toothpick between the cut to keep the stem separated. Your stem should look like it’s been impaled by a toothpick.
To stimulate root growth, paint or dip your sliced stem into the rooting hormone. Now, gently press this section of the stem into a pot or hole in the ground, cover it with more soil, and secure it in place. You can either use u-shaped pins or place a big rock on top of the buried sections.
Repeat this with several sections of your chosen stem until you have a clematis stem that looks like a serpent monster moving in and out of water.
Water your buried stems thoroughly and frequently to prevent them from drying out. You can also mulch the top of the soil to help it retain moisture.
After a few months, your stems should have rooted. Sometimes, there are noticeable signs of growth, but you can always check by digging up the section gently.
Once the stems have rooted, simply separate the sections and replant.
Clematis vines are available at most nurseries or garden centers. You can also transplant propagated vines once they’re ready or mature enough.
When planting, dig a hole approximately twice as large as the pot the clematis came in. Place your clematis into the hole, ensuring the crown is about two inches below the surface. Cover the hole with soil and mulch around the base of the plant to help it retain moisture. Water thoroughly.
If you’re wanting vines to grow vertically, they’ll need some sort of support, like a trellis or a fence. Some smaller varieties can be supported by poles, while arbors are best suited for larger varieties.
Clematis vines make great container plants too, suiting smaller gardens or even large balconies. They need a relatively large pot – the bigger the better – with decent drainage. Drainage is possibly the most important trait for your container as clematis doesn’t like soggy soil.
After planting your clematis, don’t disturb it. It’s best to place supports either before or directly after you plant the vine. Too much root disturbance may stress the plant out, preventing it from establishing correctly.
How to Grow
Before you jump into planting clematis in your garden, there’s a few factors you’ll want to make sure you coordinate. This is a pretty easy growing plant, so there’s some variability in some of their environmental conditions and hardiness zones. However, it’s still important to make sure you get the basics down. This means the proper amount of light, water, and the right soil conditions. Let’s look at how to grow clematis, and what you need to know.
Clematis need plenty of sunlight to thrive. Plant in a spot that receives at least six hours of sunlight a day. They can tolerate partial shade, but the plant won’t flower as much.
There are a few varieties that are more shade tolerant, including the Sweet Autumn Clematis, ‘Patricia Ann Fretwell’, ‘Vyvyan Pennel’, and Alpine Clematis. ‘Patricia Ann Fretwell’ is a particularly interesting variety as it boasts double blooms that are a pretty soft pink. Adding to its uniqueness is its ability to flower twice a year.
These shade-tolerant varieties will happily climb your shaded wall or if trained, make great ground cover under trees in your garden.
Clematis are relatively thirsty plants, preferring constantly moist, well-draining soil. Water your stunning vines at least once a week or just as the soil begins to dry. Avoid overwatering as soggy soil can lead to root rot and other fungal diseases.
Watering needs are variant-specific, with a handful tolerating short periods of drought. To keep your clematis happy, don’t allow too many days to go by between watering.
A healthy watering routine will allow not only your clematis to thrive but also the rest of your garden. Watering in the morning is a critical practice as it limits evaporation. Another important habit to take up is avoiding overhead watering, as this facilitates the spread of diseases.
Always water deeply and slowly to ensure the water evenly moistens the soil. This also allows deeper roots to absorb water without overwatering your plant.
When it comes to soil, clematis isn’t too fussy, as long as it’s well-draining. Sandier soil will require more watering as it drains and dries out quicker. Clay soil holds more moisture and won’t need water as often.
With that said, loamy soil rich in organic matter with a neutral to slightly acidic pH is the goal. If you struggle with heavy clay soil, you may need to add amendments to improve drainage. Coconut husk is a great organic material that improves aeration and drainage, or you can add river sand to achieve the same result.
Climate and Temperature
Clematis vines thrive in USDA zones 4-9, depending on the variety. Most grow well across these zones, having no specific temperature or humidity needs. Some cultivars like ‘The President’, known for their large purple perennial flowers, can even overwinter, springing back to life when temperatures increase.
Other varieties can survive the freezing temperatures of Zone 3 in the right conditions. The purple-blue ‘Blue Bird’ is one of them, along with Ruby Clematis, which sports bell-shaped red flowers. If bright colors aren’t your thing, then the cream flowers of ‘White Swan’ may be for you.
Clematis is as hungry as it is thirsty, requiring frequent fertilizing with a balanced fertilizer when it’s young. Fertilize once every month while the plant establishes itself. Once established, fertilize every six to eight weeks.
When it comes to flowering plants, the golden rule is to switch to a low nitrogen fertilizer during the blooming months. Nitrogen stimulates foliage growth, leaving you with thick leafy vines with little to no flowers.
The drawback to owning clematis is the maintenance required to keep it in check. As mentioned, this flower can be an invasive species if left to run wild. While some varieties aren’t considered invasive when cared for correctly, they can still grow rapidly.
It’s best to prune their vines at least once a year, but the type and variety dictate when and how pruning should take place.
Late-blooming clematis should be pruned back at least 2-3 feet in late winter, while early blooming varieties should be pruned as soon as the flowering season ends. Clematis with large flowers typically bloom in mid-spring. These should be cut back in late winter, down to the highest buds.
The amount of pruning is dependent on your garden design. If you want a large sprawling vine, prune less. If you want a more controlled look, prune more. Always cut away any dead, damaged, or diseased foliage to maintain a healthy plant and garden.
There are hundreds of options of clematis to suit every type of gardener’s need. The varieties are split into three groups. Group one is the early flowering clematis, which blooms in late winter to early spring. Group two contains mainly large flowering clematis which blooms in spring and summer. The third group consists of late-blooming clematis, meaning you spot the first flowers in late summer, sometimes even early fall.
Depending on your variety and other flowering plants, you could have year-round flowering beauties. Each offers different flower styles and colors, making them one of the most versatile plants in garden design.
As mentioned, ‘Patricia Ann Fretwell’ shows a spectacular display of pink double blooms that’ll catch anybody’s eye.
‘Jackmanii’, which falls under group three, is amongst the most popular clematis vines. It boasts deep purple flowers that practically cover the entire vine. If you’re a fan of seas of purple, this variety is the one for you.
While beauty is always sought after, the ability to resist pests and diseases keeps a gardener’s mind at ease. Some of the most resistant varieties include C. montana, C. aplina, C. orientalis and C. tangutica.
There aren’t many pests that bother clematis. You may occasionally find a rabbit or two nibbling on the leaves if there isn’t any other food around. The main bugs to keep an eye out for are slugs, and, of course, aphids. These pests are easy to control and eradicate, so don’t fret if you spot them on your vines.
Slugs can simply be picked from your vines and transported elsewhere. They’re always out in full swing just after dusk, so arm yourself with a torch, bucket, and gloved hands and you should be good to go.
Keeping slugs off your plants altogether is just as simple. Place a plate or shallow bowl filled with beer near your clematis and they’ll go for that instead. You could also opt for snail and slug traps which typically catch them on a piece of cardboard covered in a sticky substance.
Aphids seem to love almost every plant, nestling themselves on the undersides of leaves and letting their colonies run wild. Luckily, aphid infestations are easy to avoid with a few simple tricks.
Make checking the underside of leaves part of your daily gardening habits. If you spot an aphid or two, just squish them between your fingers. You can also arm yourself with a bucket of soapy water and drop any aphids in there.
For larger colonies, you may need something stronger. Neem oil is a great pesticide to use for aphids, but it can deter other beneficial insects. You can also introduce ladybugs into your garden, either artificially or by planting ladybug-attracting plants such as marigolds, to prey on aphids.
Clematis vines are prone to a handful of fungal diseases, including rust, leaf spot, and powdery mildew. However, the most devastating disease that can impact this plant is clematis wilt. Clematis wilt was responsible for the devastation of commercial clematis in Europe during the Victorian era.
These diseases are easy to identify and can usually be treated by improving air circulation between plants, removing infected leaves or stems, and changing watering habits.
Leaf spot symptoms include large brown spots with tanned centers on leaves. These spots tend to spread over time, causing large sections of the plant to become black. Leaf spot is usually recoverable, depending on your plant and how badly infected it is.
Powdery mildew causes a white fungus to grow in the leaves and stems of the clematis. If left unattended, leaves will eventually wither and die. In extreme cases, this can result in the death of your plant. It can also spread, so it’s important to treat immediately if identified.
Rust causes sections of the plant to swell with blisters, which eventually erupt and become yellow mold spores. This is important to identify and remedy early, as it can spread if not treated. If it spreads, it can ruin your plant, and potentially the plants around it.
Clematis is also highly prone to root rot as it does require plenty of water and consistently moist soil. You’ll know you’ve got root rot on your hands if your clematis begins to wither and shows signs of dying, or if the stem turns yellow just below the soil line.
Clematis wilt is quite a dangerous disease as it spreads easily and quickly. Luckily, if caught in time, you can still save the vine. Clematis wilt causes the foliage and stems of the vine to dry out and wither away. At first, red lesions appear on the stems and leaves, and if left, the infected sections can become black.
The best way to deal with clematis wilt is to improve airflow, prune away all infected foliage, and stop water from splashing onto leaves.
Clematis has many uses in the garden. It can be trained to spread across flowerbeds or under trees. You can prop it up and let it vine its way over walls and or that unsightly shed in the corner of your garden. Depending on your chosen variety, you could even grow a mini-privacy trellis on your balcony garden. Clematis truly is one of the most versatile plants when it comes to landscaping.
You can also snip some flowers away and create a stunning cut flower bouquet.
But the uses for clematis extend beyond the garden and pretty displays. Its leaves have medicinal properties, which can help soothe sore throats when crushed and added to herbal teas. In some cases, clematis has been reported to help with headaches, open wounds, and even varicose veins.
It is imperative to note that their flowers and leaves are toxic to humans, cats, and dogs if consumed in large amounts.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is clematis invasive?
Clematis can be invasive if left unattended. The wild clematis, C. vitalba, is considered an invasive species in some parts of the United States.
Is clematis toxic?
Both clematis leaves and flowers are toxic to humans and pets if consumed in large amounts. Side effects include vomiting, salivating, and diarrhea.
Does clematis like sun or shade?
Most varieties need full sun to thrive and to maximize flower production. However, there are a few varieties that can tolerate shade, such as ‘Patricia Ann Fretwell’.
When should I plant clematis?
The best time to plant, no matter the variety, is in late spring or early fall. While they can survive well into the summer in hotter conditions, it’s best to stick to traditional planting timelines.
Clematis is a wonderful vining plant that deserves a place in everyone’s garden. The sheer variety allows gardeners to pick and choose which type of clematis is best for them and allows for some fresh design creativity.
While this plant is relatively needy, requiring plenty of water and fertilizer to continue to flourish, newer gardeners can still give growing it a try. Seasoned green thumbs shouldn’t struggle with clematis at all. The only concerns are fungal diseases and their invasive nature. However, both can be easily managed with the correct maintenance, care, and watering habits.