This time of year, warm days tease us with early flowers. The best known are daffodils and forsythia, but there is one vine with a heavenly fragrance that you will smell long before you see it. It’s Armand clematis, which is also called evergreen clematis. Clematis armandii (pronounced r-mon-dee-i) is a very long, vigorous evergreen vine much appreciated by gardeners who own it not just for its wonderful fragrance, but also for its ability to cover lots of sins in the garden. As long as it has something to wrap around while it climbs, this vine will cover just about anything.
In late February or early March, the few that are in my neighborhood cover themselves with white, star-shaped blooms that are especially long lasting because they bloom at a time when the world is refrigerated. In fact, almost all blooms that appear in early spring last longer because of the preserving effects of cool air. Armand clematis keeps its clusters of pretty blooms about a month in spite of late-winter rains and light frost. Although each flower is only about 2 inches in diameter, there are many of them appearing at the tips of the branches of each vine to give the plant a snow covered look. The glossy and leathery leaves are a nice backdrop to the fresh, white blooms at a time when the landscape is still bare.
Give Armand clematis lots of room to grow, or be prepared to prune it every year. It behaves when pruned, and the vines are not nearly as thick or woody as that of another early bloomer, wisteria. The thinner vines of Armand are much better behaved, but capable of growing 20 feet or longer. Gardeners can use this to their advantage to train the plant across a long trellis or the top of a long fence. The vine twists and scrambles as it climbs, and can be easily trained to climb up sturdy wires until it gets to the top of the fence or other horizontal destination. It uses its leaf stems like tendrils grabbing the wire or itself as it grows.
Because of its propensity to climb over itself and make a tangle, Armand is not always a tidy vine. It may need to be guided and pruned. Old established vines often need pruning from underneath to clear away the older, dead vines that have been choked out by younger ones. Do this once a year, right after it blooms. The blossoms appear on old wood, so early pruning encourages fresh growth and blooms for next spring. If needed, prune an old vine back to a foot or so from the ground.
Armand clematis grows throughout Alabama. Its blooms follow the progression of early spring from February to mid-March as you move up from the coast to north Alabama. Armand can grow in full sun, but generally the vine does best in partial shade. The light shade of pines is perfect. It’s a great solution for the north side of a structure, too. Give it a good, rich planting hole well amended with compost or other organic matter where there is perfect drainage. Like many plants, it does not like wet feet. After the first few years, well-established plants become surprisingly drought tolerant. It is also generally pest-free. In spring, new leaves appear as the old ones pass, so don’t be alarmed by leaf drop in spring. This is true of many evergreens such as holly, live oak, and magnolia, too.
In addition to the most common white-flowered variety, there is a selection called Apple Blossom that bears light pink buds and flowers that age to white. It has won an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in England. After smelling Armand clematis blooms this spring, chances are you’ll be looking for a spot to plant one
in your garden.
Lois Chaplin is an accomplished gardener and author. Her work appears here courtesy of Alabama Farmers Cooperative.