Now that the early little bell clematis are passing their prime (excepting Clematis koreana and it’s cultivars, which peak now), the Montana Group bursts forth. These are the pink or white, and in some cases double blossoms often described as looking anemone-flowered, or even like dogwoods. A fully in flowering Clematis montana form makes a garden appear as though coated with a heavy layer of cake icing. Many are highly scented, adding the fragrance of vanilla to the impression of frosting. They are confections by any definition.
At the Rogerson Clematis Gardens, this group is particularly celebrated due to their being amongst Brewster Rogerson’s favorites. In the Founder’s Garden you will find ‘Jenny Keay’ (syn. of ‘Jenny’), ‘Snowflake’ (a fine selection of C. spooneri, a C. montana cousin), ‘Vera’ (pictured above), and ‘Warwickshire Rose’, all in full bloom together. But the rarity in the group is located in the Heirloom Garden, Clematis gracififolia var. trifoliata.
This variant of another Clematis montana cousin came to Brewster via Magnus Johnson, who grew it successfully in Södertälje, Sweden. Our plants are grown in the Heirloom Garden because the species was originally brought out of China and described by Ernest Henry “Chinese” Wilson in about 1910. In general terms, the flowers are smaller than those of the other species in the group.
There are four known variants of C. gracilifolia, according to Christopher Grey-Wilson. It was C. gracilifolia var. gracilifolia first mentioned by Wilson and his colleague at the Arnold Arboretum, Alfred Rehder. Later, in 1980, W. T. Wang and M. C. Chang described another variant, C. g. var. dissectifolia, with finer leaves. This seems to be the form most widely available, when the species can be found at all. A recent collection of C. montana brought back by Far Reaches Farm is quite likely this. It is mainly leaf form and geographic distribution that separate var. gracififolia from var. dissecta. The variant known as macrantha is distinguished by larger flowers and leaves. As regards clematis, Grey-Wilson tends to be a lumper. Magnus Johnson was a splitter, tending to acknowledge distinctions of leaf, flower, and geography as additional variants or even species.
Hence, our plants of what Johnson described in the 2001 English translation of his book, The Genus Clematis, as Clematis gracilifolia var. trifoliata M. Johnson var. nova (or new variant described by himself). He describes it as having purple-tinged stems and new growth, a pink cast to the flowers, and decidedly trifoliate leaves less serrated (if at all) than var. dissecta. He obtained his plants originally from seed collected by Harry Smith in 1935, and all further propagation was done by vegetative cuttings. Therefore, FRCC’s plants are clones of the original seedlings of Smith’s collection No. 12850. Grey-Wilson has lumped var. trifoliata into var. macrantha. We can leave it to our betters to sort this out, but for FRCC’s purposes, we are calling it by the name Brewster received it as, although I can see the reasoning behind melding the two variants. We have not saved seed yet, and so do not know what variations to the variant one might expect. The thing grows frighteningly easy from cuttings, we can say that for a certainty.
Our best plant of Clematis gracilifolia var. trifoliata is planted on a wire fence on the west side of the famrhouse, in Historic Garden bed C. It is not so heavy a vine as a typical montana, and has flung itself in every direction. It’s most pleasing combination in where it wanders into Syringa ‘Distinction’, a bushy deep violet lilac. The blowsy shrub makes a fine textural contrast with the daintier clematis. We have a another plant receiving more shade on the east side of the farm driveway, in a very exposed site. This second plant is slower to awaken in the spring than its more cosseted cohort, but otherwise shows no ill winter effects.