Is it Cle-MAT-is or CLEM-a-tis?

No matter how you pronounce it, there’s no question that this hardy flowering vine is a beaut.

But this versatile perennial can do much more than decorate the mailbox post. It can be used to create a privacy screen or to camouflage a chain-link fence, utility pole or other outdoor eyesore. It can act as a ground cover or a tree climber or frame a porch in a cheerful welcome.

The rambling vines also lend a sense of permanence and maturity to the garden. The Brits use them to twine through roses and other shrubs, expanding and extending seasonal color. Take a cue from them and plant several varieties for show-stopping flowers — in purple, blue, red, yellow, white or several shades of pink — blooming in your garden from late spring to early fall.

Does it sound too good to be true?

Well, the Queen of the Vines (as it’s often called) doesn’t need royal treatment, but it does require a little understanding. The best, and oft-repeated piece of advice: head in the sun and feet in the shade.

That means, ideally, an eastern exposure with about 5 to 6 hours of sunlight, plus protection from the harsh afternoon heat. To help keep the roots cool, mulch generously around the base, but not right against the stems. Neighboring plants such as hostas and shrubs can shade the base, as well.

Professional grower Kathy Donahue, of Donahue’s Greenhouse in Faribault, Minn., recommends planting clematis a bit deeper than other plants. Dig a hole a couple of inches deeper than usual, and cover the base with soil past the first healthy leaf buds. That will help protect your plant through the winter, Donahue said, and encourage growth below ground.

Once you’ve planted, water well until it’s established, then water regularly after that.

Plant with permanence in mind because a clematis can live 50 years or more. Having some support is important, too. Although the vigorous vines will climb on any nearby support, clematis can be trained onto a trellis, arbor or pergola. It’s a good idea to secure the main stems with soft ties, so the vines won’t blow down during storms.

How to prune

If you do any research on clematis care, you’re likely to be confronted with three pruning groups, labeled 1-2-3 or A-B-C. Here’s a quick description of the groups:

Group 1: sets flower buds on old wood, or last year’s growth. Because it flowers early in spring, it should be pruned after it blooms.

Group 2: flowers once in spring on old wood and then again on new growth. When you prune, cut the dead wood back only to where you see new flower buds starting to swell.

Group 3: flowers on new wood and blooms in late summer into early fall. It should be cut back to 12-18 inches in early spring for a flush of new growth.

Confused? Don’t be. There’s simpler advice for northern gardeners.

Donahue cuts back all of her clematis — regardless of what group they belong to — after the first hard freeze. As long as you water and fertilize well, she claims, there is little loss of bloom the following season.

Another northern clematis grower, the Tibbetts family of Hummingbird Farm in Maine, touts a Frozen North Pruning System. It consists of two groups: “Don’t Bother” and “Full Prune.”

“Don’t Bother” means the grower allows Mother Nature to do the pruning on early flowering varieties with whatever winter dieback occurs. “Full Prune” is for late-flowering varieties.

Not so big clematis

Not all clematis are rangy growers. If you have limited space, consider a patio clematis. These smaller clematis, developed by famed breeder Raymond Evison, grow only 3 to 5 feet, making them suitable candidates for containers with decorative supports.

Clematis flowers make surprisingly nice cut flowers. Include a few stems and combine them with other flowers and branches, or float individual blossoms in a shallow bowl of water for a lovely display.


Rhonda Hayes is a Minneapolis-based garden writer. She blogs at