THE BEAUTIFUL summer draws to a close with one of the most desirable of all plants, readily available to any gardener, Clematis paniculata.
I know I have mentioned it before. And I know, too, that some gardeners will not have it, for one of two reasons:
They strongly dislike its almond scent (a valid objection, if you happen not to love that smell).
It is a common plant, introduced from Japan in the last century and it has seeded abundantly, sometimes down alleys, and is thus not a rarity at all (and this, I think, is a foolish objection).
I notice one of the vast mail-order houses, Parks, offers a free-flowering strain of this plant, which suggests there may be a non-free-flowering strain somewhere, but if so I have never seen it.
Grown from seed, it flowers so abdundantly the inch-wide white flowers touch, and it makes a canopy of soft white against deep green.
No plant in cultivation is more suitable for the most formal garden and no plant in cultivation looks better on a farm fence or hedgerow.
Gertrude Jeckyll once spoke of a certain lilac (the old variety 'Marie LeGraye') as having arrived at the highest kind of beauty and having been content to stay there.
The same thing may be said of this clematis, which grows wild in Japan and which has naturalized itself here. There is no doubt it could be "improved" by increasing the size of the flower, the width of the little starry petals (or sepals, if you like to be correct) or finding a variation with a tinge of pink, and so on. But none of these improvements would be improvements.
I do not hold that all wild plants are perfect, though I acknowledge they are all unarguable. But many a wild plant could be handsomer than it is.
Still, there are other wild plants -- this clematis and the native wild dogwood among them -- that cannot be improved by the plant breeder, so far as I know, since they are flawless to begin with.
There is a blindness in some gardeners, especially some commercial gardeners, or at least some dimness of vision, that leads them to think a flower is bound to be showier and more desirable if its size increased.
It is not true. The great wild southern magnolia, for example, is the largest-flowered high-quality plant grown in gardens, the gorgeous ivory-suede cups reaching a foot in diameter. And yet, for all its enormous size, it is not a showy plant even in full bloom. Mind you, it is a very beautiful plant, nothing is more beautiful, but it is not showy, it is really very modest.
It is nowhere near so showy at the height of its bloom as, say, the wild dogwood, which has flowers a tenth the size.
For the dogwood blooms in a mass of solid white, the entire tree decked with flowers on bare branches, while the magnolia is only dotted here and there with blobs of white.
The dogwood, though its blooms are small, produces 30 to 40 times as many as the magnolia, and this mass makes it the showier plant.
In the same way, the sweet autumn clematis makes up for the small size of its blooms by the incredible profusion of them. It is simply not possible, I suspect, to invent a plant with more flowers on it than its clematis.
And besides that, the color combination of white and deep, rich green is unbeatable, especially in the hot oppressive last days of summer.
Nor is that all.In addition to the billions (correct me if you wish to do your own counting) of tiny flowers, the plant has a priceless quality -- grace. I think it is impossible to make this clematis graceless, no matter what the gardener does. I have seen it whacked and mangled, I have seen it burned by a fire so that half the plant is killed, I have seen it strangled with bindweed. Because it is a common thing it is rarely given good culture or any tenderness. And yet invariably, where it lives at all, it blooms not only with ravishing freedom, but it also falls about with a grace so authoritative that even the severest critic is at a loss to improve on its natural ways.
Now if anyone wishes to speak of "aristocrats" among plants, I say this clematis must be near the top of the list. It has no flaw. Nothing in the plant kingdom is more floriferous, nothing in the plant kingdom is more free of disease and insect pest, nothing that we grow is more thoroughly at home in our climate -- it does not need watering in drouth, it does not need protection from late spring frost, it does not need shelter from wind, it does not require a lion's share of sun. Not only does it have no vices, it also has every perfection. It is not merely showy, but perfectly so. It is not merely scented, but deliciously so, the perfume carried on the air. It does not merely have a good growth habit, unsurpassed by any plant grown in gardens anywhere in the world.
If any gardener neglects this vine, let me ask just what there is in the garden that not only is flawless in every way but also blooms at the dead end of the year? It is probably true to say that any gardener who does not love this plant cannot be saved.