Saturday, September 11, 2010

White Tower

My Sweet Autumn Clematis bloomed in September this year instead of late August, keeping me waiting a bit for the annual wrapup of fragrancy in my garden, but bloom it finally did.   I worried about its health all through the spring, but it nevertheless returned to sweeten the September air.

Although most of the summer it merely provides iron-clad green foliage, and after flowering silvery, plume-like seed heads will decorate it, every gardener should grow Sweet Autumn Clematis merely for the few weeks of unmatched fragrance it provides.  But talk about your confused Latin nomenclature!  Sweet Autumn Clematis has been variably listed, and can still be purchased as Clematis terniflora, C. paniculata, C. maximowicziana or C. dioscoreifolia.  The species most commonly grown in the United States, and listed by the USDA as C. terniflora, is native to Japan, although one source says that C. paniculata is a separate but identical species native to New Zealand. 

Whatever you want to call it, I grow Sweet Autumn Clematis on an 8 foot tall wire cylinder in the center of my garden, pictured above as taken on a recent misty morning.  I question the oft-repeated information that C. terniflora is hardy to Zone 4, because my history with the plant has been to grow one, lose one, have a volunteer come up in another spot, and then had that volunteer cover the wire tower for three years running until this past winter, admittedly a bad one, when it was killed back to the ground.  I waited patiently this spring, hoping to see signs of life and knowing that clematis often take some time to put leaves on their seemingly dead vines, and just as I was about to give up and was ready to find and plant a new one, some nice green shoots popped up from the ground in the center of the tower. Luckily for me and my garden, Sweet Autumn Clematis grows 20 feet in a single season and blooms on new growth, and it recovered 2/3rds of the trellis again before blooming this year.  In the Flint Hills, it seems to be completely free from disease and the flowers, though small at one inch across, are so fragrant with a rich vanilla scent that this single vine perfumes my entire garden for weeks.  To stand downwind of this central white pillar is to overdose on the scent of heaven.

Although I understand that the Internet is not always a reliable source, it sometimes pays to do a little reading anyway, and in my readings about this vine, I discovered that clematis is in the buttercup family (a neat little factoid for cocktail parties that I never attend anyway) and was called "pepper vine" by Western pioneers and used as a pepper substitute since true black pepper was a rare and expensive commodity for them.  I don't know which clematis would have been carried on the wagons westward, but the entire genus supposedly contains essential oils and compounds that irritate the skin and mucous membranes and can cause bleeding into the gastrointestinal tract if ingested in large amounts.  Thankfully, since I don't like black pepper anyway and the long-suffering Mrs. ProfessorRoush has indulged me by limiting its use in her cooking, I won't be tempted, come the Revolution, to try this dangerous substitute.

It just occurred to me that I've blogged on two white fall-blooming plants in a row.  Maybe I should start a White Garden and create a prairie Sissinghurst out here in the middle of Kansas.  What a fantasy, me and Vita (Sackville-West), gardening together at last.


  1. Hi;
    Thrilled to see that you, too, enjoy Sweet Autumn Clematis. White is my least favorite flower color (I see too much white, in the form of snow, in winter) but I make an exception for this pretty vine.

  2. I love it too. Despite all the many botanical names, I'm going to keep calling it Clematis terniflora. It's funny -- yours was late and mine was early!

  3. I need to get over here more often! You always share such great information. Thank you so much for visiting my blog - and for your comments.

    God Bless!

  4. I find it interesting that your Sweet Autumn clematis hasn't been reliably hardy. Here, just north of Wichita, my neighbor has one that has come back every year. It must be happy as it also sends a ton of seed into my yard. I find it growing at multiple points along my drip irrigation. Yours sounds much more fragrant and well behaved. Thanks for your interesting posts. Sharon


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