Fourth of July

Among my earliest memories is one from a Fourth of July celebration back when I was just a tadpole – perhaps 1949. My sister and I sat on the hood of our parents’ 1938 Buick, a big black sedan, and watched fireworks way past my bedtime. Red, white and blue rockets zoomed skyward, filling us with awe. Now, all these years later, I am awed by red, white and blue flowers that climb up towards the sky. No booms, but plenty of blooms. Right now many clematis vines are ready to show off in patriotic colors in your garden.

Blue clematis (name not known)

Blue clematis (name not known)

Clematis is a showy vine that confounds many. Unlike most flowers, these come in several different colors – including red, white and blue. Surely you’ve seen showy 4- to 6-inch blossoms on vines growing up trellises. Those were probably clematis. But sometimes gardeners plant the vines and are disappointed. They can be a little fussy. In fact, I have two that I planted earlier this summer that seem to be sulking. I know, however, that within a year or two (or sooner, hopefully) they will start growing vigorously. I have provided them with good soil, some organic fertilizer and a structure they can twine around.


What clematis vines need are hot tops and cool bottoms. They require rich, slightly moist soil that stays cool, but plenty of hot sunshine on the ascending vines. To do that, mulch the roots well with chopped leaves or ground bark mulch. And plant a medium-sized perennial – or more than one – in front of the vine to shade the soil from the afternoon sun, helping to keep the roots cool. An astilbe is about the right size, or perhaps a Shasta daisy.


I called plantsman Gary Milek of Cider Hill Gardens and Galleries in Windsor, VT for suggestions for good patriotic red, white and blue clematis varieties. He said there are two great red ones: ‘Niobe’ and ‘Cardinal Wyszynski’. The latter one is a Polish variety that is free flowering, meaning that it will keep blossoming and growing taller all summer, a definite plus.

Cleamtis recta close-up

Cleamtis recta close-up



White clematis include a variety called ‘Henryi’, which since it shares a name with me, I should get. Gary Milek said it can easily grow 8 to 10 feet up from the ground in one year. Another white one he likes is ‘Gillian Blades’, which has white blossoms and yellow anthers.


Right now I have a white bush-type clematis in bloom, known as ground clematis or by its scientific name, Clematis recta. This gets to be about five feet tall, and unless it is very well supported, it then flops over. Mine is growing in front of a stone retaining wall facing east, so it gets little afternoon sun. My bush is nearly six feet wide right now, but will die to the ground in winter.


The individual flowers are not impressive: each 5-petaled blossom is only an inch and a half across. But there are lots of them. Flower clusters are loaded with them, and the stems are nice and strong, hence great in a vase, and keep well when picked.


Come fall, I’ll have another round of white clematis blossoms when my ‘Sweet Autumn’ clematis (Clematis paniculata) comes into bloom. Like the bush-type, this clematis has small blossoms, and lots of them. And they are fragrant, or can be. I had one previously that was not fragrant, but generally they are.

pink Clematis

pink Clematis


Of the blue or purple-blue clematis, a variety called ‘Jackmanii’ is well known and very popular. It is tough as nails, thriving even after hard winters. Like many, but not all, clematis, it dies to the ground each fall. You should prune it back to within a foot of the ground in the fall or first thing in the spring. Other clematis vines do survive the winter, and should just be trimmed to neaten them up after their early summer blooming.


According to Gary Milek, a truer blue (for the Fourth of July theme) is ‘The President’. It will grow 8 to 12 feet tall, and have two flushes of blooms: early summer (May-June) and then again in fall (September-October). Like many clematis, it has good winter interest: the seed heads are fluffy white, persistent structures.


Other great climbers in patriotic colors? Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala,subspecies petiolaris) is a fabulous white vine. It will attach itself to brick or rock walls, but needs help to climb a wooden wall. These great vines are slow to start growing after planting, but really get vigorous after 5 or 6 years. Your patience will be rewarded. As they climb, they extend short branches, loaded with big white flower panicles that seem to defy gravity. And they thrive in shade, or part shade. Great for the north side of a barn, where I have mine.


Then there are the red roses. The Canadian Explorer series, developed in Ottawa, are very nice. ‘William Baffin’ is my favorite climber. He grows 8 to 10 feet high, and is technically a deep pink. But that’s close enough for me.


So if you want something to grow up to the sky, there are plenty of choices. I just wish I had that 1938 Buick (which went to the junk yard in 1961). Sigh. Maybe I’ll go buy another climbing clematis to console myself.


Henry is the author of 4 gardening books, and a children’s chapter book about a boy and a cougar, Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet. His web site is