In the Garden:
Middle South
June, 2012
Regional Report

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Clematis in the Texensis Group, such as this 'Duchess of Albany', shrug off the heat and humidity of the Middle South.

Tough Enough Clematis

There aren't many gardeners who haven't succumbed to the charms of clematis, including me. It didn't take me long to learn, however, that some of these flowering climbers are easier to grow in our hot and muggy climate than others.

Some of the best arise from Clematis texensis (commonly called scarlet clematis), a native plant found on the Edwards Plateau in Texas and the only true red-flowered clematis.

Flowers of this indigenous vine resemble an elongated egg which opens at its narrow tip into four recurved tepals. The outside color of the tepals is typically dark, ranging from scarlet to red-orange, while the inside color varies from red to pink, or sometimes yellow. Only the base of the vine is woody; herbaceous stems reach 6 to 10 feet tall, twining easily around supports.

Crossing the native with other clematis strains has resulted in a number of uniquely beautiful hybrids with tulip or bell-shaped flowers made of four to six tepals. Lucky for us, these hybrids, known as the Texensis Group, generally retain the heat-tolerance of the native parent.

In fact, Dan Long, a clematis expert and proprietor of Brushwood Nursery in Athens, Georgia, says these plants shrug off heat and humidity and are relatively drought tolerant when compared to others. Don't let that stop you from irrigating when rain is scarce, however. Dan also points out that all clematis benefit from regular water and a layer of mulch.

The first hybrids of the Texensis Group were created by an English breeder, Arthur George Jackman (1866-1926), after C. texensis was collected and sent to Europe. In 1890, Jackman introduced two crosses with the large-flowered clematis 'Star of India' that are still cultivated and highly valued today, namely 'Duchess of Albany' and 'Sir Trevor Lawrence'.

Two other popular hybrids originated from France. In 1903, 'Etoile Rose', a cross with Clematis x globulosa, was offered by the Lemoine Nursery. And just a few years later, 'Gravetye Beauty', produced from cross with an unknown red-flowering cultivar, was introduced by the renowned clematis breeder Francisque Morel.

It was nearly 80 years, however, before the next superstar of the Texensis Group was created. In 1984, Englishman Berry Fretwell produced 'The Princess of Wales' in a cross with Clematis 'Bees Jubilee'. Later, because of confusion with another vine, the clematis was renamed 'Princess Diana'.

'Princess Diana' was the first of the Texensis Group to catch my eye. Spied on a visit to a Cornish nursery in 2007, the date and event sticks in my mind because the local nurseryman objected when I noted the flowers must be as popular as the princess. In support of the Duke of Cornwall (Prince Charles), he no kind words for Diana.

The upturned, tulip-shaped flowers of Clematis 'Princess Diana' are a vivid, iridescent pink with a deep pink bar inside the tepals and a white margin along their rim. In print, they're often described as "luminous." The vine grows 6 to 8 feet tall and typically blooms from midsummer to early autumn.

'Duchess of Albany', with blooms similar in size and shape to 'Princess Diana', grows to 10-feet tall and is the easiest of the group to find in the trade. Flowers, which are a paler, two-tone pink, bloom steadily and freely throughout the summer.

Both 'Princess Diana' and 'Duchess of Albany' have been distinguished by the International Clematis Society on their list of "Best Clematis for Beginning Gardeners." Lyndy Broder, who sits on the board of the Society, names them in her "Top Ten."

Others are also worth growing, not only for their dependability, but for their unique beauty. The flowers of 'Sir Trevor Lawrence' are a vivid rosy red, while those of 'Gravetye Beauty' are ruby red outside and deep crimson inside. 'Etoile Rose', on the other hand, displays pink bell-shaped flowers that nod downward.

All of the Texensis Group grow best in full sun to part shade. Moist, well-drained soil is ideal, but their native heritage allows for a wide range of soil types. Though they perform with less, they thrive with regular moisture and periodic feedings, and appreciate a layer of mulch and good air circulation.

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