March and April flowering clematis

By late March the buds of spring-flowering clematis (like the macropetalas and alpinas) begin to swell up before they produce their flowers. These vary from wispy ballerina tutus to clean-cut ragged Peter Pan suits. The colours are mainly mid-blue and mauve-pink, but you can find purples and whites too. This group are known as the Atragenes, a mix of species that tend to come from cold, high regions with almost Alpine climates. Like all alpines they demand good drainage and dislike heavy wet soil. You can put lots of grit at the base of the planting hole, or tuck them close to shrubs where the ground has been drained by a network of woody roots. Angle the clematis into the shrub as you plant, untie the stems and remove those annoying plastic ties, before weaving the clematis through. Then let them get on with it - although they will appreciate a little extra water in dry springs. A bucket-full of tepid water gently tipped over each plant every so often will do the trick nicely.

Admittedly the Atragene Group are slower to establish than many clematis. For this reason they should never be pruned hard. Give them a neat spruce after flowering, but only if you need to. Their chief attribute is their ability to survive in cold windy places, due to their alpine provenance. The flowers always appear as the foliage breaks and this explosion of fresh flower set against spring-green leaf is a huge part of their charm. The flowers can also be picked for a small posy vase.

Newer Additions

Modern breeding has expanded the gene pool and given thicker petals (from C. koreana) and produced two firm favourites - the two-tone pink 'Propertius' and the aptly named 'Purple Spider'. 'Propertius', raised in Sweden by Magnus Johnson in 1959, combines thickly textured deep-pink tepals surrounding a paler bridesmaid-pink inner frill. It is the prettiest, but not a bit saccharine: so chaps can grow it. 'Purple Spider', found in The Netherlands in 1992, has dark purple flowers that always appear with vivid-green foliage. When the flowers start to break they have black overtones, making 'Purple Spider' completely unique. It also flushes again in summer, when happy. 'Broughton Bride' is at the other end of the spectrum, a soft blush-white.