Several years ago I couldn't imagine a more idyllic picture than a country cottage covered in climbing roses. Whether arching over a doorway, smothering a brick wall, creating a natural awning of blooms over a pergola or reaching up into the branches of an old tree, climbing roses are the showstoppers of the garden.
I now realize I was only seeing part of that idyllic vision. Climbers are certainly impressive, but they aren’t exactly eye candy between flushes of bloom.
So it made sense to find companion plants that would twine around the rose canes and add interest throughout the growing season. The clematis family, with its broad palette of colors and bloom power fills the bill perfectly.
The word clematis is derived from the Greek word klema which means vinelike. There are more than 200 species and 3,000 selections. European species of the plant were reportedly grown in British gardens as early as 1569.
Climbing roses however, are a Johnny-come-lately in the rose world. Hybrid descendants of ancient wild climbers became stylish the late 1800s. Many large-flowered climbers appeared as a result of “sports” – natural mutations – from existing bushes.
In the wild, clematis grows up through trees and shrubs so it was only a matter of time before these simpatico plants were paired, inspiring a garden sensation.
Michael Marriott of David Austin Roses of England says the combination of climbing roses and clematis is absolutely superb. “ I particularly like the varieties of Clematis viticella, which flower after the roses have bloomed.
The smaller flowers complement the climbers’ foliage beautifully, and they don’t overwhelm the roses like the montanas might do.”
The combination of C. viticella 'Etoile Violette' with the rose-pink blooms of the climbing rose Zephirine Drouhin is a perfect example.
Of course if one clematis/rose alliance is eye-arresting, why not plan for a procession of bloom all season long?
Just select an early, midseason, and late-season clematis varieties and plant all three around each climbing rose. The color possibilities are endless: There is no such thing as a true-blue rose yet, but lovely blues abound in the clematis world.
In the same vein, you won’t find an apricot clematis, but there are various shades of orange climbers on the market.
Aside from color preferences, an important consideration is where you plan to add climbing roses in the landscape.
Most gardeners start by training them to frame an entranceway or adorn a trellis. The first rule for success is to make sure your rose structure is weather-resistant and durable because climbing roses can’t “climb” at all.
In fact, they should probably be described as leaners. Their long canes don’t possess the tendrils that true climbing plants like clematis use to cling to objects.
Climbing roses need sturdy help; otherwise they would simply topple over under the weight of the heavy canes and sprawl across the ground.
Clematis also require help if they are to flourish. The flowers enjoy the sun, but the roots like to be shaded to help retain moisture. Plant each vine about a foot away from the roses and make sure the root ball is two inches below the soil level.
“The most important factor for good establishment is after-planting care,” advises Dan Long, owner of Brushwood Nursery in Unionville, Pa. “So many beginning gardeners plunk a plant in the ground, water it once or twice and then walk away. Varieties of clematis are capable of tremendous growth, but they need plenty of water right away if they are to thrive and live to 50 years or longer.”
Mr. Long, also know as the Vine Guy, notes that given the number of species of clematis, estimating how long they take to get established can be difficult. “I’ve seen some grow 10 feet in a year and bloom with abandon, while others take time to settle into their new homes.”
The same can be said for climbing roses. Varieties such as New Dawn and Climbing Iceberg can take off more quickly than slower growers like the stunning Pierre de Ronsard (also known as Eden.)
The best plan is to maintain a generous watering schedule for at least the first year and fertilize regularly once the plants start maturing so you don’t risk burning tender roots.
And whether you’re growing climbing roses, clematis, or both, be patient – they may take up to take three years to hit peak performance.
But the sight of these cozy companions growing and showing off together is certainly worth the wait.