Tim EntwisleWhen clematis is out of blossom, kissing is out of fashion

In Australia I used to repeat the often quoted statement that there is always a wattle (Acacia) in flower somewhere in Australia. (This was despite me spending a lot of time saying they have their peak flowering in August throughout much of the country, an indicator of the start of my new season ‘sprinter’. Both statements are true.)

For a country as small as England or the United Kingdom, with far less variation in climate compared to Australia, you’d might not expect any genus of plants to meet the wattle challenge.

Here is the UK, things really slow down in winter but as I’ve already blogged in past weeks there is still plenty in flower. Mostly, though, they are winter specialists like ViburnumCamellia, snowdrops and witch-hazel. There have been plenty of enduring summer bloomers and early spring flowerers but it’s hard to think of many genera that flower all year.

Perhaps the best known is gorse (Ulex). As the old saying goes, “When gorse is out of blossom, kissing is out of fashion”. There are three common species and if you drive around the UK in any season you will see the distinctive yellow pea-flowers on the road side somewhere.

Another genus that attracts a wattle-like statement is Clematis. I’ve just read that there is a Clematis species or cultivar in flower “every month of the year”. I was searching the web to help identify a Clematis Lynda had noticed in flower in the streets of Kew.

It turned out to be a cultivar or variety of Clematis cirrhosa, possibly balearica (which is recorded as both a cultivar and variety, but I gather more correctly the latter), but as usual I found out more than just the name of this species. I discovered that I should not be surprised to find Clematis in flower now and that this variety, commonly called the fern-leafed clematis, is found naturally in Majorca, nearby Minorca (which I hadn’t heard of, but its name makes sense!), Corsica and Sardinia. The species as a whole has a Mediterranean distribution.

I also found the helpful website called Howells on Clematis, “maintained in memory of the late Dr John G Howells, 1918-2007”. Howells was a Sussex-based clematis grower with 40 years experience. He wrote numerous books on the genus and was for a time chair of the British Clematis Society, as well as editor of its journal. So he knows about clematis and when he says there is one in flower every month, you believe him.

Howells divides the winter flowering clematis into four groups. Clematis cirrhosa is one of the Evergreen Group and Lynda’s Kew specimen does indeed have lovely healthy leaves in January. Var. balearica seems to be a particularly pretty variant and to me quite a surprise in the middle of winter.

Dr Howells does like to group and classify, which as a taxonomist by inclination and training I can’t help but admire. Our Clematis cirrhosa is filed under subgroup A within the Evergreen group, along with Clematis napaulensis. The Evergreen Group is one of four within the ‘Small Flowered Species and Their Hybrids’, the second of two divisions within the Early Flowering Section…

I gather the Evergreen Subgroup also gets the designation ‘Gp IIIB’ in Wim Snoeijer’s classification, but that’s for the more serious student of clematine knowledge and lore. But do take a look at Clematis on the Web for more on Snoeijer and of course clematis. I learned there that Clematis cirrhosa is lemon-scented, and went to back to the source to take a sniff (hmm, not confirmed). And also that the variety came to England in 1783 via my newly discovered Minorca.

One of the charms of being a plant enthusiast (or for that matter, I imagine, a mollusc or marmalade enthusiast) is the chance of discovering something new ‘every month of the year’, a least! It’s not that others won’t know already, and perhaps I once knew but have forgotten! For me, today was the day I discovered Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica, that some clematis flower in winter, and that Dr Howells knew a lot about them all.

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Tim Entwisle

About Tim Entwisle

Dr Tim Entwisle is a scientist and scientific communicator with a broad interest in plants, science and gardens, and Director & Chief Executive of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. Previously he was Director of Conservation, Living Collections & Estates at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and prior to that, Director of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens for eight years. Read Tim's full blog at Talking Plants

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