Best early-flowering clematis: expert's choice
Plant expert John Hoyland recommends 14 of the best winter-flowering clematis to grow in your garden. Photographs by Jason Ingram.
Plants that flower during the winter should be treasured far more than those that are part of the chorus of high summer. At the start of winter, one of the moments I look forward to is seeing the first few tentative flowers on the Clematis cirrhosa that covers the woodshed. I know that by January the plant will be a clematis blanket of creamy-yellow bells.
Clematis cirrhosa is one of several winter-flowering, evergreen and semi-evergreen clematis that, although they have no formal botanical grouping, all flower during the winter and early spring. With many to choose from, we should never be short of the sparkle and joy of winter flowers.
Here are the best winter-flowering clematis
Don't miss our focus on Clematis montana, which late-flowering clematis to choose and how to grow herbaceous clematis.
Pruning early clematis
Early flowering clematis flower on growth made the previous year, so wait until they have finished flowering before doing any pruning. They do not need routine pruning but you can tidy them up if necessary.
After three or four years, Clematis armandii and Clematis cirrhosa may develop woody, bird's nest growth. Cut back about one third of the plant to the base and the repeat the process on the other two thirds in subsequent years.
Clematis 'Early Sensation' and the cartmanii hybrids produce so many flowers that they often exhaust themselves and generae little in the way of new growth. To keep the plants vigorous and healthy, prune them in two stages:
- Trim them immediately after flowering, to remove the dying flower heads and prevent any energy being lost in seed production.
- At the end of May, cut the whole back to about 50cm from the ground, to encourage new growth and prevent the plant becoming bare and woody at the base.
Read our expert guide to pruning clematis.
The best winter flowering clematis for the garden
A rare, vigorous plant that in a sheltered site can grow to 4m tall. The sweetly scented flowers are followed by silver seed heads. The main flush of flowers is during the early spring but in mild areas a few brave flowers start to appear still in winter, in January. 4m x 4m.
Buy Clematis paniculata seeds from Chiltern Seeds
Clematis cirrhosa ‘Wisley Cream’
First raised in the 1970s, this winter-flowering clematis cultivar has proved to be a robust and undemanding plant that blooms from November to March. The flowers have a green tinge when they first open and fade to a creamy white with age. 4m x 1.5m.
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Buy Clematis cirrhosa 'Wisley Cream' from Crocus
Buy Clematis cirrhosa 'Wisley Cream' from You Garden
Clematis cirrhosa var. purpurascens ‘Freckles’
Dark pink speckles on the inside of the flower glow through to the outside of the petals, giving the whole flower a pink blush. This winter-flowering clematis cultivar blooms between October and February. 4m x 1.5m.
Buy Clematis cirrhosa var. purpurascens 'Freckles' from Crocus
Buy Clematis cirrhosa var. purpurascens 'Freckles' from Thompson & Morgan
Clematis cirrhosa ‘Ourika Valley’
The most floriferous winter Clematis cirrhosa, which flowers from December to March. The tepals are longer and narrower than the species. The name refers to a part of Morocco where seed of the original plant was collected during the 1980s. 4m x 1.5m.
Buy Clematis cirrhosa 'Ourika Valley' from Primrose
Buy Clematis cirrhosa 'Ourika Valley' from Thorncroft Clematis
Clematis cirrhosa ‘Jingle Bells’
The first Clematis cirrhosa cultivar to start flowering, in the autumn. Creamy yellow buds open to flowers that fade from cream to white with age. Reputedly the hardiest winter flowering Clematis cirrhosa, thriving even in cold parts of the North. 5m x 2m.
Buy Clematis cirrhosa 'Jingle Bells' from Crocus
Buy Clematis cirrhosa 'Jingle Bells' from Primrose
Buy Clematis cirrhosa 'Jingle Bells' from Hayloft
Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica
From the island of Menorca, this winter-flowering clematis is covered with speckled, lemon-scented bells from November to March. In very cold weather the ferny foliage turns bronze and purple. Grown in Britain since the 18th century, it received an RHS Award of Garden Merit in 1993. 2.5m x 1.5m.
Buy Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica from Crocus
Late winter-flowering clematis cultivars
This dwarf New Zealand hybrid bears small buds like green berries for weeks. They begin to flower, sparsely, from January, then profusely from March to May. The leaves are fern-like and grow from thin, wiry stems. It's perfect for a large pot. 1m x 1m.
Buy Clematis 'Pixie' from You Garden
Buy Clematis 'Pixie' from Crocus
Buy Clematis 'Pixie' from Gardening Express
Clematis x cartmanii ‘Avalanche’
This lives up to its name, with masses of white flowers, up to 6cm across, from February to April. The dark leaves are like parsley and the purple stems are a bonus after flowering. This winter flowering clematis holds an RHS Award of Garden Merit. 2.5m x 1.5m.
Buy Clematis x cartmanii 'Avalanche' from Thompson & Morgan
Buy Clematis x cartmanii 'Avalanche' from Van Meuwen
Buy Clematis x cartmanii 'Avalanche' from Primrose
Clematis paniculata var. lobata
The flowers are slightly larger than the species, but just as sweetly scented. The new leaves have roughly toothed edges, but this disappears as the plant matures. Flowers from January, and more profusely from early spring. 9m x 2m.
Clematis ‘Early Sensation’
The buds of this plant dangle but turn up as the flowers open, from February to April. The base of the petals is apple green, making a crisp contrast with the dark, waxy non-clinging foliage. 2m x 2m.
Buy Clematis 'Early Sensation' from Crocus
Buy Clematis 'Early Sensation' from Thompson & Morgan
Buy Clematis 'Early Sensation' from Primrose
Clematis x cartmanii ‘Joe’
Fat buds, full of promise, start to appear in January and grow like bunches of grapes for several weeks until opening. The flowers are as close as you can get to a buttercup, a relative in the Ranunculaceae family. 1.8m x 50cm.
Buy Clematis x cartmanii 'Joe' from Crocus
Buy Clematis x cartmanii 'Joe' from You Garden
Buy Clematis x cartmanii 'Joe' from Primrose
Big, leathery leaves emerge copper-coloured, maturing to a shiny green. Clusters of pink-tinged buds open to white flowers from February to May. The perfume from hundreds of these winter-flowering clematis flowers on mature plants can be powerful. 5m x 3m.
Buy Clematis armandii from Crocus
Buy Clematis armandii from Thompson & Morgan
Buy Clematis armandii from Gardening Express
This tender species is usually in flower in December and is as jolly as any Christmas decoration. The green, bean-shaped buds open to reveal flowers with dangling purple stamens. In most parts of the country this species needs the comfort of a cold greenhouse or conservatory. 3m x 1.5m.
Buy Clematis napaulensis from Suttons
Buy Clematis napaulensis from Thompson & Morgan
Buy Clematis napaulensis from Crocus
Clematis ‘Lunar Lass’
Another tender New Zealand hybrid, this winter-flowering clematis needs winter protection, so is best grown in a conservatory or cold glasshouse. It’s a compact, scrambling plant that bears strongly citrus-scented flowers from February to April. 1m x 1m.
How to grow winter flowering clematis
Clematis x cartmanii and associated hybrids were originally thought too tender to grow outdoors in Britain. In fact winter-flowering clematis will thrive in sheltered places that do not drop below -5°C during the winter, as long as they are protected from cold, drying winds. In colder areas, grow in pots in cool greenhouses or conservatories.
Cold winds are also the enemy of Clematis armandii so choose a sheltered spot in sun or part-shade.
Where to plant winter flowering clematis
In general, winter-flowering clematis prefer moist conditions but Clematis cirrhosa must be kept dry, especially during the winter. An ideal place to plant it is on a south or west-facing house wall, where the eaves of the roof protect the soil from heavy downpours.
Clematis need rich, moist soil with a cool root-run, so plant close to the base of perennials or shrubs to shade the soil. Clematis armandii needs to be well fed, so apply a generous mulch of compost every autumn.
Clematis cirrhosa will need a plant support at first – tie the stems in to 1m canes. As it becomes established it will twine itself around wires, posts or trellis. Clematis x cartmanii hybrids are not twining plants so they are unable to support themselves when grown as climbers. They can be left to sprawl along the ground or to flow over the edge of pots.
How and when to prune winter-flowering clematis
How to prune Clematis armandii and Clematis cirrhosa
Clematis armandii and Clematis cirrhosa are vigorous plants that need regular pruning to be kept under control.
- They flower on growth made the previous year, so wait until they have finished flowering before doing any pruning.
- Cut back growth to about 1m below the area you want the plant to cover.
- After three or four years both Clematis armandii and Clematis cirrhosa may develop dense, woody ‘bird's nest’ growth. Cut back about one third of the plant to the base and repeat the process on the other two thirds in subsequent years.
How to prune Clematis 'Early Sensation' and Clematis x cartmanii
Clematis ‘Early Sensation’ and the cartmanii hybrids produce so many flowers that they often exhaust themselves and generate little in the way of new growth. To keep the plants vigorous and healthy, prune them in two stages:
- Trim clematis immediately after the flowers have finished, to remove the dying flower heads and prevent any energy being lost in seed production.
- At the end of May, cut the whole plant back to about 50cm from the soil, to encourage new growth and prevent the plant from becoming bare and woody at the base.
How to prune Clematis paniculata
Clematis paniculata tends to be spindly, but looks better with bushy growth.
- For a few years after planting, cut back to 60cm from the ground.
- Once it has become bushy, allow it to grow into the size you want and then trim it back each year after flowering.
Don't miss our pruning guide on how to prune climbing plants.
Jason Ingram is an award winning garden photographer based in Bristol, UK. He travels widely shooting for magazines, book publishers and advertising agencies. He also works with top international garden designers and Landscape Architects on private projects worldwide.
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