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A Blooming Misconception

Clematis, the Graceful Vine With the Beautiful Flowers, Won't Grow Here, Right? Wrong. Plant Some and Watch Them Become Your Garden Stars

March 18, 2000|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Plants are no strangers to untrue rumors. Just ask clematis--a graceful, climbing vine with gorgeous flowers that blooms much of the year in Southern California--when it gets a chance to grow.

Labeled for years as a plant that won't grow here, clematis hasn't taken off as it could.

Edith Malek is baffled about the origins of the misconceptions.

"Clematis aren't at all difficult to grow in Southern California," says the Irvine gardener and author of "American Clematis Society's Guide to Growing Clematis in the United States" (American Clematis Society, 1999, $24.99).

"If you can grow a rose, you can grow clematis," says Malek, who will be giving a class on clematis April 1 at M&M Nursery in Orange. "Clematis make a stunning addition to any garden with their exquisite flowers."

Granted, clematis generally won't cover giant pergolas here as they do in England, where they are popular. Some established vines here, however, can reach respectable heights of 15 feet or more.

Nina Stratton was one of many Orange County gardeners misguided by the myth surrounding clematis.

"For years, I had been told emphatically by nursery people that clematis don't grow well in Southern California, so I didn't even try them," says the Mission Viejo gardener. "Then I met Edith Malek and learned otherwise. I planted three clematis right away, and now I have 10."

For Stratton, plants that were supposed to be duds have grabbed the spotlight in her garden. "Clematis are showoffs," she says. "They just get out there and holler, 'Look at me!' "

Clematis flowers come in an array of shapes and colors, including purple, white, pink, burgundy, lavender, red and yellow. They bloom much of the year, although the plants are deciduous in the winter months.

Depending on the variety, many clematis grow from 6 to 8 feet tall in Southern California. They can be grown just about anywhere, including on trellises and fences, up onto patio covers and into other plants. They aren't, however, aggressive and invasive, preferring to stick to themselves.

Huntington Beach garden designer Cory Kelso counts herself lucky that she doesn't heed warnings about what won't grow in her garden. A native of the East Coast, where clematis grow, Kelso started planting the vine about eight years ago.

"Fortunately, the first variety I chose was the purple-flowered 'Victoria,' which is a good one," says Kelso. "I planted it on an arbor with 'Cecile Brunner' roses, which are pink, and the combination is wonderful."

Kelso has just one warning about growing clematis: "It's hard to stop planting them once you start," she says. "I have at least 20 now. The blooms are so beautiful and exotic-looking that visitors are amazed."

Clematis grow equally as well in the ground and containers, making it possible to add them to just about any landscape, says Malek, who has 120 thriving in her yard.

For best results growing clematis, keep the following tips in mind.

* Start with a healthy plant. "The bigger the plant, the better," says Malek. "Start with a 5-gallon or larger plant. Look for strong, thick, undamaged stems." Smaller plants will eventually grow, but are more subject to failure.

* Choose a good location. Where you plant your clematis is critical to its survival, says Malek. The site should have four to six hours a day of sun, although some clematis can be grown in bright shade.

Don't plant clematis near aggressive plants with invasive roots, because clematis are not good at competing for water and nutrients. Put them at least 4 feet from trees and 2 to 3 feet from shrubs. They grow well near roses, which are also not aggressive plants.

* Properly prepare the planting site. Dig a hole that is 18 to 24 inches wide and deep. The larger the hole, the better, because it gives the roots more room. Soil should be amended so that it is rich in organic matter, well-draining and able to hold moisture. Use a peat-moss-based mix designed for clematis at a rate of 50%.

Also keep in mind that clematis prefer a soil pH of 6.5 to 7.0. If you are unsure about your pH, have it tested. If your soil is alkaline (above 7.0) like much of Southern California soil, add gypsum or gypsite in the spring and fall. This will help lower the pH and condition the soil.

* Plant carefully. Clematis are best planted in fall and spring. Avoid transplanting in the hot summer months.

To plant, don't pull or knock the plant from the pot. That can damage its delicate roots. Instead, cut the plant from its pot. If the plant appears root bound, very gently loosen only the outermost roots.

Plant so that your clematis root ball is 3 to 5 inches below the surface of the soil. Water thoroughly after planting.

* Try containers. Almost all clematis thrive in containers. Use a pot at least 18 inches wide and 18 inches deep.

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