Northern California Regional Reports

The Best Bush Clematis for Northern California

They may not climb like their cousins, but these easy-care plants are still blooming machines in our climate

bush clematis
Nonvining clematis still put on an impressive bloom show in early summer. Photo: Fionuala Campion

There is extraordinary diversity within Clematis, including an outstanding array of growth habits, foliage types, flower colors, and bloom sizes to marvel at. But go beyond the tried-and-true familiars to explore a little further and you’re going to discover a whole new intriguing world of clematis! In Northern California, my favorite clematis are long-lived, long-blooming, herbaceous, shrublike types. These beauties may ramble, scramble, and wend their ways through other shrubs and roses during the growing season, but some act exactly like any other shrubby herbaceous perennial in your flower border. They are all perfect additions to shadier perennial beds or are useful as fillers and spillers to trail over rock walls or the edges of hanging baskets and patio containers. These nonclinging clematis are surprisingly easy to grow, and with their long-lasting flowers (as charming and diverse as those of their climbing counterparts), they truly deserve a place in the landscape. The following are just a few of my favorites particularly suited for our Northern California environment.

Petite Faucon clematis
Its dark purple, single blossoms make Petite Faucon clematis unlike any other clematis out there. Photo: Richard Hawke

Petite Faucon clematis (Clematis ‘Evisix’, Zones 4–9)

This is my all-time pick, with its intriguing 4-inch-wide blooms made up of slender twisting petals in deep indigo-blue, all centered with a cluster of bright yellow anthers. From June through September, masses of fabulous blooms almost continuously cover the fresh green foliage of this low-growing beauty. Trained upright, it barely stretches to 4 feet tall, but Petit Faucon is best enjoyed as a mounding, trailing, floriferous addition to the shadier border and left to ramble and weave naturally. It’s fabulous in containers too. Cut it back to 6 to 8 inches tall in early January.

‘Early Sensation’ evergreen clematis (Clematis × cartmanii ‘Early Sensation’, Zones 7–9)

An evergreen with a dense growth habit, ‘Early Sensation’ has deep green, glossy, highly textured foliage that highlights to perfection the profuse and very showy springtime display of charming, fragrant, snow-white blooms. It has great year-round interest, is fabulous as a ground cover, and is gorgeous trailing out of a big pot. ‘Early Sensation’ can reach to 5 feet tall trained upright, or left to trail as a ground cover or spill over walls or a container’s edge. No pruning is necessary, except to deadhead, tidy up, or redirect growth.

Mrs Robert Brydon’ clematis
You might mistake ‘Mrs. Robert Brydon’ clematis for a different type of perennial thanks to its shrubby compact habit. Photo: Fionuala Campion

‘Mrs. Robert Brydon’ tube clematis (Clematis heracleifolia ‘Mrs. Robert Brydon’, Zones 4–10)

This vigorous clumping variety can be corralled and trained upright with ties, allowed to ramble through shrubs, or used as a very tall, very billowy ground cover. Whatever way you choose to grow this eye-catching Ohio discovery, be prepared for the deep green foliage to be smothered by huge sprays of fragrant, blue-and-white starry flowers from midsummer through fall. This is a taller variety, reaching 6 to 8 feet tall and wide. Prune it back to an area with a number of buds, 8 to 12 inches from ground level in late winter.

Inspiration clematis
If you’re looking for one of the longest-blooming clematis, try ‘Inspiration’ clematis with its intense pink blooms. Photo: courtesy of Dan Long and Brushwood Nursery

‘Inspiration’ clematis (Clematis x integrifolia ‘Inspiration’, Zone 3–11)

From June to September, showers of delightful, four-petaled, deep pink blooms measuring 3 to 4 inches across blanket the bushy foliage of this wonderful scrambler. Though it can be attached to an upright support (and thus reach 5 to 6 feet tall), this lovely cross between Clematis integrifolia and Clematis ‘Warsaw Nike’ is at its best winding its way through other plants or allowed to mound and billow naturally. Prune it back to 6 to 8 inches tall in early January.

How to Grow Bush Clematis

Here are five tips for growing nonvining clematis to perfection in Northern California.

1. Watch the exposure

In Northern California, these plants are happiest when sheltered from the hottest afternoon sun. Coastal gardeners with foggy, cooler conditions can grow clematis in all-day sun, but for most of us, four hours of morning sun with shade from noon onward, or filtered bright light all day, works best.

2. Keep the soil rich

Deeply cultivated, well-drained, slightly alkaline soil amended with compost or well-aged manure is much appreciated. Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch on top to maintain cool soil temperatures, keep weeds at bay, and help retain moisture.

3. Water regularly

Clematis grows vigorously and blooms most generously with regular irrigation, so deep watering at least twice a week during summer is important.

4. Don’t forget to feed

Fertilize regularly throughout the growing season using a well-balanced, all-purpose fertilizer to encourage the development of healthy, deep roots, vigorous growth, lush foliage, and of course, abundant spectacular blooms.

5. Be sure to prune properly

Many nonvining clematis will act exactly like an herbaceous perennial and die back completely to the ground. Simply clean up any remaining debris, mark the spot so you don’t accidentally plant bulbs there, and mulch. For shrubbier, multibranch types that don’t die back completely: In January look for buds on the stems, and prune your plant back to 6 to 8 inches from ground level. New stems will also appear straight from the crown. After pruning, give your plant its first feeding of the year to get it off to a fabulous start. If the plant is evergreen, simply deadhead and shape it occasionally to keep it in bounds.

To read more about clematis, go here.

—Fionuala Campion is the owner and manager of Cottage Gardens of Petaluma in Petaluma, California.

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