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Clematis climbs to the top

Evergreen clematis is blooming its little head off right now. All over town, huge drifts of star-shaped flowers blanket their vines so completely they hide the leaves, let alone what the vine is climbing on.

At its best, evergreen clematis performs a delicate high-wire act, flowering in wild abandon. It is a sight to behold for weeks in early spring. At its worst, the leaves look like desiccated banana leaves that have no intention of falling off. Those leaves will hang, tangled and tattered, 'everblack instead of evergreen,' until you cut them, says Linda Beutler, one of Oregon's leading clematis authorities.

Beutler grows 232 clematis vines in her small Sellwood garden. Although only a few are evergreen, with that many clematis in one postage-stamp-size lot, I like to think of Beutler as the local clematis queen.

Let's start at the beginning. Is my clematis 'evergreen?' It is if it has green leaves all winter. You've probably got 'Snow Drift' or 'Apple Blossom' armandii clematis. There are many other kinds of clematis, but most of them lose their leaves at the first frost and don't flower until late spring or summer.

The key to success with any clematis is to avoid overexposure to the weather.

Beutler says: 'Don't grow armandii in an unsheltered part of east Multnomah County,' or anywhere else it can be ravaged by the wind. Evergreen clematis just can't take the battering of the chinook winds.

And on the design scale, Beutler asks that you try to resist the urge to grow it around your front door where it gets so heavy it looks like 'Groucho Marx's eyebrows.'

Another important distinction here: Evergreen clematis is not ivy. Unlike ivy, you can kill evergreen clematis (if you want); it does not attach itself to your home with suckers or get out of control unless you're lazy with your pruners. So if your clematis is taking over, perform a little 'wicky-wicky' with the whackers and prune it back.

Once a year, whether you want to or not, it also is advisable to reach underneath the green growth and pull out the old brown leaves. Or you can have a hand at another practice called 'tip pruning.' This is a little easier in the long run, but requires more diligence.

Tip-prune clematis by snapping off the long ends when you notice they are 'headed for the moon,' Beutler says. 'This will make a bushier plant, too. Pruning won't hurt the plant, but if you're worried about the springtime blooms, wait until after it flowers, which should be any time now.

Have you seen the brand new 'Avalanche' evergreen clematis? It flowers like 'Apple Blossom,' but it has frilly, shiny leaves that look like parsley. And let me tell you, nobody's going to turn up his or her nose at this parsley in the garden palate.

OK, so the leaves are different on the two types of evergreens we're talking about here. There's another big difference, too: The 'Avalanche' with parsley leaves has no fragrance. C. armandii Ê'Snow Drift' and 'Apple Blossom' have a clean vanilla fragrance you can smell all the way across the yard.

The evergreen clematis is a great climber, while 'Avalanche' also doubles as a great ground cover. Both will grow about 15 to 20 feet, so stand back. But this gives you an opportunity to have a garden that goes up and not just out.

All varieties flower once a year and make a fast screen to fence out neighbors. Finally, while we're talking about clematis, there's always bound to be a controversy about how the name is pronounced.

As the secretary of the Pacific Northwest Clematis Society, Beutler has the duty of abiding by correct pronunciation of the plant. So let's just get that out of the way right here. The experts say 'KLEM-uh-tis,' but many of us regular folks say 'Kle-MAT-is,' and everyone else seems to know what we're talking about even if they do roll their eyes.

This week's to-do list:

• Provide plant supports for peonies now before the plant leafs out and blooms.

• Pull weeds, weeds, weeds.

• Cut off last year's old flower heads on hydrangea.

Garden gossip:

• At the Celebration of Clematis, May 24-May 26, Beutler; Mary Toomey, the Irish author of 'An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Clematis'; and clematis collector Brewster Rogerson will talk about their favorites. There will be contests for best potted clematis and best clematis photo. Joy Creek Nursery, 20300 N.W. Watson Road, Scappoose. Call for details: 503-543-7474.

• Americans spend $37 billion a year on lawn and garden products, according to the latest figures available from the National Gardening Association. That's $444 per household. (Hey, wait a second: I'm throwing the average off!)

'Anne Jaeger's Gardening Tips' airs at 9:56 a.m. Saturday and Sunday on KGW (8). Jaeger's Web site is at www.gardengal.tv.