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Clematis Takes Its Place in the Sun

Gardening: Edith Malek likes the versatile climber so much that she founded a local society to promote it and dispels myths about its care.

August 24, 1996|KAREN DARDICK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Edith Malek calls herself the clematis queen of Orange County. She's on a mission to encourage every California household to grow at least one of the vining plants in its garden. The plants produce an abundance of showy flowers.

"I'm fascinated with them," she says. "They're magic. They climb into a boring bush that doesn't bloom and transform it."

Because the vines are thin and fragile, these plants can be used in conjunction with large shrubs, trees or climbing roses. They will send out tendrils throughout their host plants without damaging them. When they bloom--in spring, summer or fall or repeatedly during the year, depending on the variety--the effect can be dramatic, like a purple-flowered C. jackmanii wending its way through Buff Beauty, an apricot-hued climbing rose.

Clematis are grown worldwide and are especially popular in England, where gardeners train them on fences, trellises, gazebos and other garden supports.

Although several clematis species are native to California and the western United States, they have a reputation for demanding a lot of water and care and have not been popular with Southern California garden enthusiasts.

Until now.

Malek is determined to correct what she feels are misconceptions about her favorite plant.

"We can grow them here," she states emphatically. "They're not the water hogs people say they are."

Malek is a trained horticulturist and certified professional nurserywoman. She obtained her ornamental horticulture degree from Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa in 1976. Her love affair with clematis began two years ago when she worked at a now-closed nursery in Irvine, where she lives. She was told they don't grow well in this region.

Undaunted, she planted seven varieties in her garden, which features roses and perennials. She observed them carefully and was overwhelmed by their beauty and versatility, she says.

She enlisted the aid of her husband, Kenneth, to build trellises and other supports and began a quest to accumulate varieties.

Most nurseries only stock a few, so she researched mail-order catalogs. She joined the International Clematis Society, headquartered in England, and read books and articles on the subject.

She now has 32 clematis varieties in her garden and plans to expand her collection. And she founded the Southern California Clematis Society.

"There wasn't any information that was really applicable to Southern California," she said. "So I decided to start a local clematis society that would address our unique growing conditions."

The society, the first one in the United States, meets at 6:30 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each October, December, February, April, June and August at the Palos Verdes Begonia Society, in Torrance, where Malek works. There are 31 members; 10 live in Orange County.

Clematis are easy to grow, Malek says, if gardeners understand their growing requirements.

"They like their feet in the shade and their heads in the sun," she says. "So they need to be planted in very rich, fast-draining soil, with their roots covered by mulch, but then the plants like to climb into the sun."

Clematis are susceptible to "the Phoenix phenomenon" and require patience on the part of the gardener.

"In its first year in a garden, a clematis plant can collapse, and it may look as if that new $30 plant has just died," she says. "But they're very resilient plants and more than likely will rejuvenate, just like the mythical Egyptian bird, the Phoenix, which dies in a fire and later rises renewed from the ashes.

"I've noticed that a crashed clematis will send up even stronger stems than before, if it's been planted correctly."

Malek welcomes inquires about growing clematis or the Southern California Clematis Society at (714) 224-9885.

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