Sweet autumn clematis: a fragrant, fall-blooming charmer of a vine

Looking for a charming, fragrant vine that blooms exuberently in fall? Consider sweet autumn clematis.

Photo courtesy of Betty Earl
Sweet autumn clematis blankets a chain-link fence in a white fleecelike cloud.
Courtesy of Betty Earl
Sweet autumn clematis “eats” a mailbox. How the mail carrier manages to deliver the mail is a mystery.

Although I am an avid gardener and plant nerd, I hate hot, humid weather, where I wilt faster than Aquaman at a blazing Arizona pep rally.

But give me the first cool day of autumn and I am in my glory.

Yes, my tomatoes are on their last gasp, my hostas look parched, and most of the summer bloomers are past their grandeur. But handsome “hoodies” – the poisonous but beautiful monkshood (Aconitum) – shower me with vivid blue-flowered spikes when blue is at a premium.

Scattered clumps of naked ladies (Lycoris squamigera) add fresh splashes of pink color throughout the gardens; and nothing wears her garb as jauntily late in the season as the strutting perennial sunflower (Helianthus) showing off her brilliant hair-do of fluffy, golden daisylike flowers.

But as gorgeous as these all are -- and they are indeed gorgeous – nothing, absolutely nothing entices me more than the seductive siren scent of sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora).

An impressive vine

A twining vine that can reach 30 feet in height at times, sweet autumn clematis is one alluring diva that makes a very impressive statement when it blooms in the garden.

Blessed with incredible numbers of small, highly fragrant, white, star-shaped blossoms, a mature vine forms a white fleecelike blanket that drapes beautifully over large rocks, chain-link fences, arbors, or pergolas.

Ahough considered by some as a pesky vine, sweet autumn clematis is enjoyed by many as a beautiful, easy-to-grow, sweetly scented charmer.

It is wise to note, at this point, a thought of concern. Although the vine is easily controlled here in my Midwestern garden, it does produce a tremendous amount of seed each year. In Southern states, sweet autumn clematis is often considered a noxious weed. It can aggressively self-seed in the landscape and escape cultivation, thereby landing it on a number of invasive species lists.

Landscaping magic

Years ago (before the advent of small digital cameras which we now all carry), I was fortunate to visit a garden with an incredible display of this vine. The passionate gardener, who lived in a subdivision that did not allow fencing, craved a measure of privacy in her garden.

So this audacious lady purchased 32 wrought-iron arbors, had them installed end-to-end around the perimeter of her property, and planted sweet autumn clematis at the base of each one.

When they were in full bloom, you almost needed a machete to cut through the strong sweet scent in the garden, but the sight of the vine draped arbors in full bloom surrounding the property, was magical. (For those wondering, the neighbors did not complain. However, the subdivision association did look into this but deemed it garden hardscaping, and grandfathered her in when they wrote the new rules regarding fencing.)

Hardy to USDA Zone 5, sweet autumn clematis prefers to have her feet in the shade and her head in the sun. After planting, provide a deep weekly soaking during that first spring and summer, and you need not bother with her thereafter. My plants have prospered through the coldest of our Midwest winters and the worst of summer droughts with absolutely no help from me.

Some gardeners prefer to cut her back to a foot or so in early spring. I never do, for my goal is to achieve an exuberant coverage of my arbor. But if you tend toward a restrained vine, by all means, prune her back.

Give your vine a rock, a fence, an arbor – heck, give her a tree – to climb on and come September, she’ll thank you with an incredibly charming display of vanilla- scented blossoms.

Betty Earl, the Intrepid Gardener, is one of nine garden writers who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She's the author of “In Search of Great Plants: The Insider’s Guide to the Best Plants in the Midwest.” She also writes a regular column for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine and The Kankakee Journal and numerous articles for Small Gardens Magazine, American Nurseryman, Nature’s Garden, and Midwest Living Magazine, as well as other national magazines. She is a garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens and a regional representative for The Garden Conservancy. To read more by Betty, click here.

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