A garden cornerstone well worth the time and expense

Several years ago, while browsing through plants at a local nursery, a Clematis caught my eye, not just for the gorgeous color of the flower on the plant tag, but for the advertised price. This Clematis C. ‘Rouge Cardinal’ from Monrovia — was nearly four feet tall and planted in a three-gallon pot sitting below a sign that said “Clematis $15.” Those of you who have ever shopped for Clematis know the true meaning of sticker shock, so you can imagine my excitement to get to the counter before someone woke me up from this botanical daydream.

When the cashier rang up my purchase, which also included a few other perennials, the total was well over $100. I looked at her surprised and perplexed, so she explained that the ‘Rouge Cardinal’ was $50. Despite my best efforts to argue the contrary, it was either pay $50 or leave it behind. To this day, I consider its purchase one of the best buys in my gardening history.

My ‘Rouge Cardinal’ grows on a trellis anchored to the northeast corner of the house, at the end of a twelve-inch wide bed between the driveway and foundation. The bed is primarily planted with  Hemerocallis fulva (Common Orange Daylily) which serve as the perfect shade cover for the Clematis roots.

In early spring (late March this year), the leaf buds of ‘Rouge Cardinal’ burst forth from the vines. Now that the vine is well established, I tend to cut the previous year’s growth back to the first large leaf buds in late winter.

It takes the leaves about three to four weeks to fully emerge, and then the flower buds start to grow all over the vine. This year, there must be close to 100 buds on ‘Rouge Cardinal’. To me, the way the vine folds itself over the new, fuzzy flower bud looks as if the plant is bashful and not ready to show its true self quite yet.

Soon, the flower bud grows higher than the vine, leaving its folded “arms” to grow more vine below. The bud swells and begins to take on a tinge of a crimson cast that betrays the coming flower.

The bud continues to grow, reaching 2-3 inches before starting to open. By this time, the burgundy of the bloom is evident.

Within a couple of days, the flower begins to unfold, revealing its reproductive center of burgundy-highlighted stamens and cream-colored pistil.

The open flower contrasts beautifully with the spring green foliage of the vine, and complements the brownish-red color in the vine itself. The petal texture is best described as a delicate velvet, but one that holds up well to the breezes of spring in central Illinois.

As the flower reaches full bloom, it flattens out and the stamens and petals spread apart, as it takes on more of a purplish tone.

Even though I bought a plant with several years of greenhouse growth, Clematis ‘Rouge Cardinal’ took at least two full years to become vigorous in the garden. In fact, after the first year, I wasn’t sure it would survive. But with the price I paid for it, it was certainly going to get a lot more time and TLC before I gave up on it.

Without a doubt, ‘Rouge Cardinal’ was well worth the time and expense. There are a few plants that I consider the cornerstones of my garden, and this Clematis is certainly high on that short list.