JANINE PINEO

Centuries-old obsession keeps on growing

Clematis '‘Elsa Spath’'
Courtesy of Cindy Tibbetts/Hummingbird Farm Greenhouse
Clematis '‘Elsa Spath’'
Posted June 29, 2012, at 3:08 p.m.
Clematis ‘'Ibi’'
Courtesy of Cindy Tibbetts/Hummingbird Farm Greenhouse
Clematis ‘'Ibi’'

A half a millennium ago, some bloke tripping around the Spanish countryside stumbled over a purple flower and brought it home to England, where it took root and sprouted an obsession that today has led to thousands of cultivars the world over.

I hope he wore sensible shoes and trousers, for I keep picturing this fellow foraging for new plants whilst wearing a doublet, thigh-high hose and “breeches” that looked more like bloomers, the fashion for the mid-1500s.

So began the clematis craze on England’s side of the globe.

On Japan’s corner of the hemisphere, the many varieties native to Asia were getting their own day in the sun, but those wouldn’t make their way west until the 19th century, according to the British Clematis Society.

I first noticed clematis many years ago but had no idea what that magnificent blooming vine was I would see occasionally. It was hard to miss that wall of color splashed against the side of houses. Usually the hue was a deep, velvety purple but sometimes the vision was magenta-rich.

Driven by the desire to get one or more of my own, it was easy to discover the identity of the mystery climber.

So I got some clematis. Which died.

I got some more. All dead.

Finally gave up for a while.

Then tried again.

Success came in the form of the Clematis lanuginosa ‘Nelly Moser’ (the magenta) and C. ‘Jackmanii’ (the purple) Even then it took a few seasons before I saw decent blooms.

Victory meant I kept trying to add more, but only one other survived. Its name escapes me, but it looks like a dwarf ‘Sweet Autumn’ with its profusion of small white flowers.

Fast-forward to this spring when I, much like that bloke wandering Spain, found the website for Hummingbird Farm Greenhouse in Turner at hummingbirdfarm.net.

It’s a clematis lover’s paradise, with the true beauty in that the plants are grown here in Maine, more than 80 hardy varieties of them.

Cindy and Brian Tibbetts are the owners of the business, which started doing mail order a few years ago. Needless to say, I had to order some, four to be precise.

The first pair, the spring-flowering ones, arrived in April, coming out of the box like they’d never be in it in the first place. The second pair, the summer-flowering ones, came earlier this month, just as ‘Nelly Moser’ started to show off in my yard.

All were accompanied by a handwritten thank-you and excellent care instructions that would have been great to have had back in the day when all I did was kill clematis.

And it got me to wondering, “Why clematis?”

So I called Cindy earlier this week to ask just that.

She laughed and said, “People obsessed don’t need reasons, do they?”

With a genus of more than 300 species, clematis has a genetic diversity that appeals to her, she said, with “all the colors, shapes and sizes.”

The couple got into “this” in 2000, looking for something different to offer that would bring customers to their off-the-beaten-track greenhouse. That something was clematis.

Their expansive collection stems in part from their work with a plant broker, who is always on the lookout for a variety for them to try.

And their success rate?

Kind of matches mine, it would seem. Early on, Cindy says, she killed her share until figuring out what works best for Maine, which has different demands than warmer zones.

The result is that the Tibbetts have good advice for making their “ladies” happy.

• First, improper planting leads to failure. Their basic instructions for planting are easier than you think: dig a hole the size of a bushel basket and mix up about 10 pounds of compost with a couple of handfuls of bulb fertilizer. Put that mixture into the hole and then make a hole in that mixture and fill with water. Let it drain, then place the clematis 2 or 3 inches deeper than it was in the pot. Fill in the rest of the hole with the original soil and water again. Keep it watered to the tune of an inch a week, because clematis love water.

• The small-flowered types are easier to grow than the large-flowering. So try one of those first.

• Pruning doesn’t have to be rash-inducing, Cindy says. They’ve discovered that the spring-flowering ones don’t need to be pruned and the summer-flowering varieties should get a “full prune,” which consists of cutting the entire plant back to 12-18 inches in height in late March or early April.

• Most clematis don’t need full sun but should get at least four hours a day or they won’t bloom well, if at all.

• Ever hear of planting clematis with their feet in the shade? An old wives’ tale, Cindy says, and thinks it stems from the simple fact that clematis love water and therefore shade keeps the roots from getting too dried out. But if you water consistently, you’ll be rewarded.

One last thing to remember about the ladies comes from instructions posted on the Tibbetts’ site and a sure sign that patience is a virtue when dealing with this plant.

“First year they sleep, second year they creep, third year they leap.”

Contact Janine Pineo at jpineo@bangordailynews.com.

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