Photographs: Charles Francis
June 2016: Charlie Brown is in the naughty corner. But the eye-catching clematis with the flamboyant bright pink blooms will soon be ready to be replanted in the garden at Roseland House.
Clematis viticella ‘Charlie Brown’
Garden owner Charlie Pridham explains why plants such as his namesake are brought to this particular place on the patio: “We call it the naughty corner because it’s for plants which don’t grow very well. We can keep an eye on them there.” Extra watering and anti-slug and snail measures are part of the treatment. “Some plants curl up and die,” says Charlie. “But others thrive there, so then we know we can move them to make room for another problem plant.”
Charlie and his wife Liz have hosted a National Collection of Clematis viticella cultivars at their Chacewater home for almost 20 years. Viticella is found in the wild in northern Portugal, the south of France, Italy, Greece, the Balkans, Turkey and Iran. The plants are accustomed to hot, dry summers, and die back in the winter to escape plunging temperatures.
They can often be found on river banks, so can tolerate floods — and ferocious thunderstorms, which can hit Cornwall even in summer. “Their powers of recovery are remarkable,” Charlie says. “They can also cope with our terrible soil — Chacewater was built because there were so many mines around here.” And unlike other varieties of clematis, viticella cultivars are immune to clematis blight.
Clematis viticella ‘Betty Corning’
Charlie and Liz now have around 80 different varieties, in myriad shades of red, pink, blue, purple and white. “When plants come in, we evaluate them, put them in a pot and decide if they should be in the collection,” he says. “Then I propagate them, plant them out, and see how they do. I don’t get really excited until I see them in flower. We were once given a bunch of sticks in a car park in February, and told it was a new variety. We did get some plants from that, but not many. You have to have a vetting process over several years to weed out the also-rans.”
The most popular varieties at the Roseland House nursery are not always the best growers. Customers are often keen to buy ‘Ruby Wedding’ — but Charlie likes to draw their attention to more reliable red-flowering varieties. ‘Prince George’ and ‘Princess Charlotte’ are currently much sought after. It is too early to say whether they will be successful in the long term; ‘Princess Diana’, however, has stood the test of time.
Clematis ‘Princess Diana’
“People see new varieties at the Chelsea Flower Show, and then ask for them at garden centres,” says Charlie. “But if a plant has been around for 100 years, it’s probably a good one.”
Most of the varieties in the collection date from the period between 1865 and 1930, but there also many bred in the 21st century, including some raised by Charlie and Liz. ‘Cornish Spirit’, which produces a profusion of rose red blooms was created to mark the 150th anniversary of the Cornwall Blind Association in 2006, and has since proved popular with Cornish expats. Violet ‘Poldice’ and purple ‘Tim’s Passion’ also have a strong following, and the couple have high hopes for ‘Carlien’, with its small, soft pink flowers, which will soon be on sale.
There are two other National Collections of Clematis viticella cultivars, in Hampshire and Lancashire, and plants are regularly swapped between all three. Liz and Charlie are also always on the lookout for rare varieties. “Part of our function as a National Collection is to keep alive all the plants garden centres aren’t interested in,” Charlie explains. “People are often surprised that they have something growing in their garden, and yet they can’t get it anymore — except through a National Collection. And when we hear that someone’s bred a new one, we contact them and ask for a copy — particularly the Dutch ones which don’t necessarily come to the UK.”
Most Clematis viticella varieties flower during July, August and September, but a few bloom earlier. ”‘M Koster’ is always the first,” says Liz. “It’s a floppy pink one which comes into flower at the beginning of June. The later ones are still flowering in November. Last year, we still had clematis in flower at Christmas because it was so mild.”
Clematis viticella ‘Chacewater’
As well as opening their garden for the National Gardens Scheme this month, Liz and Charlie are showcasing their collection on the last weekend in July. “People will be able to see all the plants in proximity to each other — which will help them choose the shades they prefer — and get ideas about where to grow them,” says Charlie. “We only have one acre here, and we’ve long since run out of walls and fences, so we’ve had to be imaginative. If you have climbers — and we have over 500 — you can have lots of different plants, each with four or five weeks of loveliness. After the wisterias and camellias have finished, the clematis comes through.
“People worry about clematis getting too big for their boots, but it’s not difficult to prune them. I removed 150 stems from one plant a few months ago, and they filled a wheelbarrow. It’s much easier to curb something than get it to grow.” “Especially in Cornwall, where we have wind and poor soil,” says Liz. “And the National Collection of slugs and snails!” adds Charlie.
The couple do have a second National Collection — not of slugs and snails, but Lapageria rosea cultivars, and next year, they plan to apply for a honeysuckle collection.
In the more immediate future, they are preparing to welcome visitors, as the clematis flowering season approaches its zenith. Before then, there is a chance to have a sneak preview: in the Roseland House show tunnel, many enchanting clematis plants are already in bloom, six weeks ahead of their counterparts in the garden.