Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Naughty but nice

The other evening I was walking up the steps on the side of my house when a sweet fragrance stopped me in my tracks.  I looked down and saw the white starry blooms of Clematis terniflora (formerly known as C. paniculata and C. maximowicziana) looking like something that ought to be in a fairy tale wedding.

Sweet autumn clematis blooms in August here in Atlanta.  I remember a wedding reception at a gardener's home years ago.  The date was August 21st, and the garden was breathtakingly beautiful, due in part to a wall covered in sweet autumn clematis.

Clematis terniflora is from Japan and is also known as Virgin's Bower.  The frothy white flowers are followed by attractive silky seed heads.  It is extremely easy to grow.

But that is about the extent of the vine's good points.  It is horribly invasive, and it is unattractive in winter, when it can look like an impossible tangle of brown, crispy stems and leaves.

The above photograph was taken at my house two years ago.  I could look out the library window and see this fabulous mass of blooms covering a hemlock hedge and scrambling up into a dogwood tree.  It was beautiful, but it made me a little uncomfortable seeing how fast it had grown from the previous year.

Last summer, the deer discovered the vine and left only the flowers they couldn't reach.  This year, I have just a small patch growing on the ground, or rather covering some English ivy, another foreign invader.  I have to admit, though, that the pure white flowers are exquisite against the dark green.

Sweet autumn clematis is in Category 3 ("exotic plant that is a minor problem in Georgia's natural areas....") on Georgia's list of invasive plants.  Right now, if I could get into a kayak and go down the part of the Chattahoochee River near my house, I would be able to see sweet autumn clematis gone truly wild.  This time of year, trees and shrubs on the banks are smothered by the misty white flowers, which spread by seed.

What to do?  You can still buy sweet autumn clematis, and if you stay after it (you should prune it almost back to the ground in late winter; actually, I've chopped it off after the first freeze of autumn, and it came back fine), it can be a thing of beauty and provide fragrance at a time when there's not much going on in the garden.  Just remember, though, it can get away from you in a hurry, so proceed with caution.

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