I am always getting asked to recommend evergreen climbers. Evergreen climbers that look good, take up little ground space, and enhance a wall, fence, pergola or archway throughout the year. Oh yes, they have to grow quickly too, but they mustn’t smother everything. My first thoughts always gravitate towards the ivies, especially the large-leaved varieties which I particularly like. I start off by calling them hederas. Hopefully this gets a slightly glazed look. I then clarify and explain that I am really recommending ivies, only to see a look of sheer incredulity and horror. “Why on earth would this madman recommend a rampant tree killer that is likely to pull down my house?” The eyes say it all. Usually I persevere and state the case for these excellent evergreen climbers that tolerate any soil, grow in shade and look after themselves. Sometimes I win my inquisitor over – and I’m going to have another go later in this blog post.
Just to get your attention I am going to start with evergreen clematis as one of my favourite evergreen climbers. After all clematis are our most popular climbing plants so it is hardly surprising that evergreen clematis cause great excitement. However they are not the hardiest of creatures, and may take a hammering in severe weather. Having said that, after the awful weather of this winter my Clematis armandii looks fine. It is already bursting with fat buds all over the front of the house right now.
Clematis armandii is a strong growing evergreen climber with stems that can reach 5 metres (15ft) or more. The leaves consist of three long, finger-like leaflets, dark green and leathery; that hang from the pale green stems. By late winter the fat buds in the leaf axils are exploding into plump masses of burgundy buds that expand to pure white starry flowers with yellow stamens. In an early season these open in early spring, later in spring in a colder situation. This is not a plant for a windy site, but it will grow happily over a sheltered fence, wall or shed. It climbs by twisting its leaf stalks around a support, so well placed wires are essential. This is a plant with a mind of its own, and if you try and train the stems into a position far from where they want to grow they may die back.
After flowering you need to remove some of the older stems, any dead leaves and damaged shoots. Plants raised from seed vary in flower size and quality; named cultivars are a better choice. Clematis armandii ‘Enham Star’ is an excellent free flowering clone with masses of pure white blooms.
The fern-leaf clematis, Clematis cirrhosa, is more delicate in appearance. Pretty divided, fern-like shiny leaves are carried on brown stems. In late winter bell-shaped, pale creamy flowers hang from the leaf axils of even the thinnest shoots. Clematis cirrhosa likes some sun but copes with dappled shade so can be grown though a deciduous shrub such as Berberis thunbergii. This clematis requires no pruning, but can be cut back after flowering to contain its spread. A native of Southern Europe and parts of Asia it is not for an exposed situation but thrives in most town gardens. Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’ is one of the showiest cultivars with cream flowers heavily splashed and marked with deep pink. The flowers are delicately scented. They are reputed to smell of cowslips but I’ve rarely detected it personally.
The chocolate vine, Akebia quinata, is semi-evergreen. With twining stems it has interesting leaves consisting of a cartwheel of round-ended leaflets. In spring clusters of pendent flowers appear, these can be anything from brown-pink to burgundy and there is a white form too. I love it for its leaves and was very excited when I found it growing in the wild in Japan.
This is the ideal choice for a wall, fence or arbour with some sunshine. It is a well behaved plant with twining stems and small dark green leaves that usually turn dark red in winter. It produces prolific sweetly scented, jasmine-like flowers and is surprisingly hardy for such a luxuriant looking plant. I have one on the corner of the front porch and it looks great throughout the year. I love its heavy, rather exotic fragrance when it blooms in early summer. It will grow on a shady wall but it doesn’t flower well and the leaves do not colour in winter.
I’m afraid to say for a shady wall the large leaved hederas are unbeatable. Don’t give up on me now – I’ll tell you about a couple of good ones! Although you may be afraid of the self clinging nature of ivies I can assure you that, providing your wall or fence is sound, there is no reason why they should cause any damage. Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Variegata’ with large dark green leaves boldly edged and variegated with cream is one of the best performers in any situation. For a brighter and bolder effect choose Hedera colchica ‘Sulphur Heart’ with shining dark and emerald green leaves boldly splashed with golden yellow. It makes a good planting partner for the winter jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum. As the jasmine has untidy stems and growth habit the ivy provides an excellent background which shows off the blooms of the jasmine without drawing attention to the stems.
If you want a short evergreen climber for shade do not forget about those useful Euonymus fortunei cultivars. These are easy to grow, tolerant of shade and poor soil conditions and look good throughout the year. Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ has green and white variegated leaves while Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’ is true to its name. Both are usually grown as small shrubs but they make excellent short climbers for a wall or fence or beneath the window on a house wall.
When planting a climber, do not plant too close to a wall or fence, as this may hinder root development and keep the plant too dry to establish successfully. Plant at least 30cm (12ins) away, ideally more and angle the climber towards the support to encourage it. Keep well watered during the first growing season and tie in the climber as it grows using flexitime, that soft plastic tie that does not damage fragile climber stems.
Now if you want to know more about how much climbers can add to your garden why not join Philippa Bensley on her on line course ‘How to use climbers and clematis in garden design’. The next course starts on 6th April and I know she would love to have you along.