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Clematis Etoile Violette

Can I cut back C. Etoile Violette now rather than the end of winter? There are so many plump buds forming at the end of 8ft long stems it seems a shame for the plant to put so much energy into producing buds now, only for them to be discarded in February

Comments (18)

  1. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Hi Jane,

    Your clematis is one of the viticella group, and this means that they flower best if cut down to about knee height at this time of year.

    Most of the standard advice is to do this in February, but in my opinion this can often be too late - they will already be starting to sprout and, as you have spotted, will waste all that energy.

    I know it seems cruel and heartless to chop back those 8' long stems but trust me, it's worth it: they only flower on the new growth, so those long stems won't have any flowers on them.

    I think that the reason for the frequently-read advice to cut back climbers (and perennials, for that matter) in February goes back to the olden days, when the hired gardeners in the big estates would be either laid off over the winter, or would be occupied on other tasks around the estate, so they would come back to the flower gardens in spring and start again then. Also, a lot of those big posh families would go away for the winter, so there wasn't any need to tidy up the flower gardens until nearer to their return. Personally, I would rather cut back the dead material now, so that I don't have to look it all over the winter!

    A second reason might possibly be the weather: it is well documented that 300 years ago the Thames used to freeze over every year, and it was substantially colder in winter than it is now. Much agricultural and horticultural advice is way, way out of date: it's been handed down from Head Gardeners to trainees with never a thought of scientific investiagation, trials, or simply updating their learning, so you do get the same advice repeated decade after decade, and it may well be that in "olden times" there was a lot more frost damage, so plants had their dead foliage left in place until spring to save the buds.

    I mean, how often, even today, do you read about lifting your Dahlia tubers to store them indoors over winter? I have gardens where the Dahlias have been in situ for five years, ten years, without any harm at all. Times are changing....

    My advice to you, as you are based in London (not in the far flung icy reaches of Scotland) is to cut the clematis down to 2' or so, now. I've been going round all of my gardens doing this for the past fortnight, as I always do!

  2. Grower


    So glad to read this advice, because I cut ours down, regardless, they look such a mess otherwise, it has never done them any harm......

  3. Grower


    Hi Rachel

    Thank you so much for your advice and explanation. I always value your responses to people's queries and your explanation makes so much sense.
    I shall venture outside today and cut this wonderful clematis down to approx. 2', along with some other viticellas. Should I also put down some blood, fish and bone or chicken manure pellets? This is what I usually do when I've pruned my clematis in the spring before.

  4. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Hi Jane, (blushes) you're most welcome!

    I would say, no, don't feed the clematis now, for two reasons: one is that if you feed it now, it might try to put on a growth spurt, and the tender new foliage would probably be damaged by winter weather.

    Secondly, if you feed it now and it doesn't immediately grow, you will be "wasting" all the nutrients because, by the time spring arrives, they will have been washed out of the soil and will no longer be available to the plant.

    Better to hang on to them until early spring, and then give the clematis a small fistful of food (either one will do) along with a good watering and maybe some extra mulch of home-made compost, to get it off to a great start next season.

  5. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Angela, hi, (waves) that did make me laugh! Yes, it's quite hard to harm a clematis by pruning it, and they often do look SUCH a mess by year end, but in the interests of completeness I should point out that there are some clematis that really don't benefit from a good chop right now: those are the ones that flower early in the year (or in winter) on the previous year's growth.

    So if you cut them back now, they will grow again next season, but there won't be any (or many) flowers.

    The simplified explanation is to remember when they flowered: if they flowered BEFORE June, then don't cut them back now: if they flowered AFTER June then you can hack them to knee height with impunity.

    I've just realised that we've already covered this topic, Stephen asked the question back in March, and the comments were quite helpful, so if anyone is struggling with clematis pruning, they might like to take a look at that post again.

  6. Grower

    Angie's Garden

    I experimented with Clematis pruning last winter and found no difference whatsoever with flowering times this summer. They were done nearer the end of November and last winter was a bit milder than it might have been ordinarily. However, the tail end of November and the beginning of December saw continual frosts here so I only got round to doing them all today. Not the early flowering ones though. I will be keeping a close eye to see what difference it makes this coming summer. Hopefully none!

  7. Grower


    Hi Rachel and Angela
    I've done the deed! Shame to see all those juicy buds go, was even tempted to take cuttings but need to be realistic so they've been composted instead. Even tempted to partially prune C. Mrs Cholmondeley even though this flowers much earlier. Very bare first 3 feet but full of buds already.

  8. Grower

    Hawthornes Clematis

    Best to chop all Viticella Group clematis down to the floor February 14th ( remember the Valentines Day Massacre ). You should have planted them with the crowns 6 inches below ground level. They flower on new wood. A few of the Integrifolia / Viticella crosses we cut back twice, hard in February then back to a couple of feet in May, this prevents them from becoming too tall for the herbaceous borders although it does delay flowering..

  9. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Are you professional clematis growers, Hawthornes Clematis? If so, I'd love to know your reasoning behind leaving it until mid Feb before cutting back Viticella.

    My Clients all want it done well before Christmas, so they don't have to look at the unsightly mass of dead brown matter all through the winter: so I cut them all down to knee height then, which leaves enough material that we can spare a few more buds if they get nipped by the frost, and also leaves enough material in place that we can see where they were, and not trample all over them while clearing the beds.

    If there is a good horticultural reason for leaving the unsightly top growth, then I'd very much like to know it, so I can assess whether I should change my pruning recommendations or not!

  10. Grower

    Hawthornes Clematis

    Hello Rachel, yes, I have the Hawthornes Clematis Nursery in Lancashire. In the garden here we have over 200 different clematis species and cultivars, including the National Collection of Clematis Viticella. I also breed new clematis.
    With clematis, as with most other garden plants, we want as many flowers as possible, this means that obviously we need lots and lots of flowering shoots.
    In his book, Trouble Free Clematis - The Viticellas, John Howells shows this illustration where the flowering stems multiply from below ground. I have also taken a photo of a clematis Mary Rose in a nursery pot today, removed quite a bit of top soil and I am sure that you can see the 2 new shoots, which were below ground, from the single stem above ground.

    • Clematis Etoile Violette
    • Clematis Etoile Violette
  11. Grower

    Hawthornes Clematis

    This is how your Viticella Group clematis should look in Summer

    • Clematis Etoile Violette
    • Clematis Etoile Violette
    • Clematis Etoile Violette
    • Clematis Etoile Violette
  12. Grower

    Hawthornes Clematis

    John Treasure, Morning Heaven, Elvan, White Magic.

  13. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Thanks for all the information, Hawthornes Clematis: but you haven't actually answered the question!

    "Is there is a good horticultural reason for leaving the unsightly dead top growth in place all through the winter, until early spring?"

  14. Grower

    Hawthornes Clematis

    This is my clematis Morning Heaven at present, OK, you and importantly, your customers, want to be rid of last years growth before Christmas. I want the plant to flower profusely in Summer on new wood on new shoots from below ground. One chop, mid February, job done. Can I ask, please, what do you do with the old stems that you leave at ' knee height '? Do you prune them again or just leave them in situ ?
    Your reason for wanting to prune early is not a horticultural reason, is it ?

    • Clematis Etoile Violette
  15. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Hi again Hawthornes Clematis (waves) (say, good thing you didn't decide to specialise in Hawthornes, isn't it! Or would you then have been Clematis Hawthornes? Just a thought...)

    Yes, my Clients (customers buy things, Clients buy services) don't want to look at dead brown stuff. That's the reason I chop early, and if I were to find out that there was a sound horticultural reason for leaving things until Feb or even April, then I would have to tell them that I couldn't do as they wish, any more.

    However, it does look as though it's just convention, to leave them until Feb or "late spring", doesn't it?

    You are suggesting doing it in Feb, but why not do it in mid December, then? You would still have your new shoots growing from very low level in spring, but you wouldn't have to look at the dead brown stuff until February.

    To answer your question, most of my Clients (and to some extent, me as well) are a bit wary of cutting clematis right down to soil level in the manner that you describe, as the fresh new shoots are just too tempting for slugs etc. Leaving the old shoots at knee height saves them from the worst slug ravages, and from bunnies.

    In the real world, I often find that my "knee high" viticelli are making strong new growth very early in the year, and although I usually say, in a would-be reassuring manner "if those new shoots are damage by frost, we can always cut to buds lower down" in a rather hydrangea-style way, I rarely need to: the new shoots spring out from the top ends of the knee-high shoots, and from lower down as well. To be perfectly honest with you, I often intend to go back and cut them lower down in early spring, but I rarely get time.

  16. Grower

    Hawthornes Clematis

    Ha ha,!! Hawthornes Clematis Hawthornes, so funny, I nearly fell off my chair. No, not really. You see, I live at The Hawthornes and I grow clematis for my many thousands of retail customers ( Customer---person who buys goods or services, Oxford and Cambridge Dictionaries ).
    Gardeners World January 2017, you couldn't get much more up to date than that, page 38, article by world famous gardener Carol Klein, prune your Viticella clematis in February.
    So you and your CUSTOMERS want to rewrite all the clematis pruning rules, just because it makes their gardens look prettier, everyone else says February, you say December, that's fine.
    I, and my CUSTOMERS, will stick to the February prune regime, fresh new growth from the crown of the plant is far better than dead looking twigs with green shoots on the end
    Also please be aware that slugs can climb to knee height or even well above, unless you have some extremely long legs.

  17. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Oh dear, it's so hard to get the tone right when typing - I did not mean to cause insult or upset. Please forgive me.

    My point was to try to establish whether there was a horticultural reason for cutting back clematis viticella "in the spring", rather than "in autumn". Everyone and his dog always says "in the spring" - I want to know if this is just what's known as conventional wisdom, ie "this is how it's always been done so this is how we will continue to do it" or whether it is scientifically proven to be necessary to leave the dead material over the winter.

    I have been asking this question for many years and have not been able to get an answer - every always says "it's how we've always done it" which is no answer at all!

    I had hoped that a professional clematis grower would have some input on this point and I was very pleased for the opportunity to ask one: unfortunately all I have done is, it seems, put your back up, for which I apologise.

  18. Grower

    Hawthornes Clematis

    Please don't apologise, Rachel, I am not in the least offended. I am a clematis fanatic having grown them for many years, I try to pass on my experiences to other gardeners in the hope that we all achieve the maximum possible pleasure from this splendid genus. I have tried many different methods of pruning over the years, unfortunately many of my earlier experiments were not recorded, so I do not have photographic evidence to show the outcomes. Another factor that convinced me that pruning my Viticella Group clematis ( please note not all Viticella Group clematis should be called viticella ) in February was that the plants that we only pruned back to about 2 ft., needed a phlox paniculata or monarda planting directly in front of them to hide the unsightly hard brown dead stems from the previous year. Keep up the good work, we need more enthusiastic nursery owners with specialist plants to encourage others, best wishes, Richard

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