PLANT OF THE WEEK #43: Clematis viticella 'Polish Spirit'

It’s not surprising that plants that you yearn for but have no hope of growing are infused with a sense of magic and mystery.  What is surprising is that even some plants that you can grow can retain some of those same qualities – of unfulfilled (or perhaps it’s insatiable) longing, and an almost mythical aura.

All of the showier clematis fall into this category for me.

Clematis viticella ‘Polish Spirit’ has been in full bloom for weeks now, right outside the kitchen window.  Its velvety purple flowers are so magical – so exquisitely lovely – that I find myself almost unable to look at it for too long.  A simple glance in its direction causes something like a blast of endorphins.  I’m not sure what a long, slow examination would induce.  I must try.

I planted two of them on the recommendation of Judy Button of Almeda Homestead Nursery, who told me that the viticella types are amongst the most heat and drought tolerant of the many clematis they grow.  She also told me that most clematis are quite drought tolerant once established.  None of mine had previously lasted through this establishment phase, so I was keen to put the theory to the test by looking after them initially, following planting in spring 2019.  As it happened, I was forced to give up on them in those brutal weeks during early summer when we’d had no rain and bushfires were raging, after only a few careful waterings.  But it seems that they didn’t give up on me.

One is in an extremely dry spot at the top of a west-facing retaining wall (which is always a tough location, given the exceptional drainage at the top of a wall, and exposure to afternoon heat).  It’s emphatically alive, but the flowers are tiny and not worth having.  The other hides on the eastern side of a water tank so is protected from afternoon sun, and is in full and luxuriant bloom.  Neither is irrigated.  So it’s clear that they’re tough.  But it’s also clear that when pushed to the limit of their drought tolerance, they’ll underperform.  That’s not at all an undesirable characteristic in a ‘sink or swim’ garden like mine in which nothing can be coddled.  It means they’re likely to survive the worst summers, and perform when the going’s good.  That suits me.

Like all of the viticella types, Clematis ‘Polish Spirit’ is pruned pretty much back to stumps, or to a skeleton, in early winter (early, since it shoots into growth by mid-late winter – much earlier than most other deciduous plants).  And then, flowering as it does on new growth, then you want to maximise flower density and duration by maximising continuous growth via generous feeding and, if you can, plenty of water.  Being on tank water only, and not a lot of it, I can’t.

You’d think, given the seriously suboptimal treatment that mine receive – the neglect bordering on cruelty – that guilt or shame would infect my response to their performance.  But no such thing occurs.  Every glance out the window fills me with the vague but rich, unquenchable longing that hovers over and around certain kinds of joy.  Long may it last.

What plants bring you inexplicable levels of joy?


  1. Thanks to Judy at Alameda, I have Polish Spirit growing on a tripod among perennials. It performed beautifully last summer. I took Judy’s advice and cut it back after the first flowering, gave it a feed of Sudden Impact and a good water and it took off again. This summer it hasn’t been quite so exuberant, possibly because I moved it. I have another viticella, Etoile Violette, around a (slightly leaky) concrete rainwater tank. It has been a beautiful proven performer for many years, regardless of the degrees of brutality of our summers. The cool damp it enjoys at the base of the tank might have something to do with its performance! Right now, Achillea Antique Parchment is the thing that draws me out in the mornings and early evenings. Its variagations of rusty red/burnished orange/apricot fading to creamy butter yellow lift the spirits no end. It’s a beautiful partner to its neighbours anda bit of a show stopper all at once.

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