Another Unwelcome Visitor

There are many unwelcome visitors in the garden; greenfly, rose sawfly, aphids, blackfly, pigeons and deer to name but a few. More recently however, another entry was added to this list. This new entrant isn’t an animal, bug, bird or pest; it is an entirely different creature, indeed if you could call it that. It doesn’t have eyes, mouth or teeth, nor legs to move around nor does it have wings to fly. This new presence is completely invisible. It can’t be smelt, it can’t be sensed by touch, nor can it be heard as it is completely silent. It doesn’t have a taste and it is far too small to be seen. It utterly evades the senses. It pervades the air yet you can see straight through it. It is a dark, malevolent presence that wafts lazily here and there only makes itself known when it chances upon a clematis. When this happens, there is little hope for the plant.

It is the thing that causes Clematis Wilt and this time it took out almost all of the Clematis “Chantilly”, in a matter of days.

Clematis Wilt on Clematis Chantilly

My favourite clematis, Clematis Chantilly was growing as a strong, tall column of green with so many buds along its length the flowering was promising to be a jaw-dropping spectacle worthy of the Chelsea Flower Show. That is until it became infected with wilt. I first noticed it when the numerous flower buds that were all pointing up and just days from opening, suddenly drooped, the green leaves also hung limply from the leaf stems. Over the next few days these flowers and leaves withered and whole stems began to turn brown and crisp. What was once a vibrant green tower of flower power was reduced to a a sad, brown, stolen promise.

Clematis Wilt is still a mysterious condition that affects the large flowered hybrid clematis. It seems to be caused by a fungus called Phoma Clematidina but there can be other causes. The way and the speed at which Clematis Chantilly mostly died points to a fungal wilt condition. The fungus causes lesions in the stem towards the base of the plant that stop the water flowing beyond that infection point, causing everything above it to collapse and die. The fungus strikes close to flowering time, which I find particularly evil. Once Clematis has wilt, there is nothing that can be done, susceptible clematis does not have natural immunity to fight off the infection nor are there fungicides or other treatments that can be used as a cure or even reasonably as a preventative measure. Friendly garden wildlife such as nematodes, predatory bugs and birds are no use here.

All you can do is watch with a feeling of complete helplessness as the wilt systematically destroys entire sections of the plant.

Clematis affected with wilt

It is in all, completely disheartening and having seen wilt take out Clematis Chantilly so quickly, I’m convinced this is the source of my problems (and reputation) with trying to grow clematis. This wilting is affecting a couple of other clematis planted in the trugs at the front of the house but thankfully to a much lesser extent.

Despite the devastation all is not lost. While most of Clematis Chantilly has now browned to a crisp and even the parts that have inexplicably escaped will eventually succumb; wilt rarely kills the entire plant. The roots will still remain alive so what I need to do now is to be brave and cut the plant down to the ground. I should also remove the stones and replace as much of the upper layer of soil as I can without disturbing the roots too much. Eventually, fresh shoots should emerge from the base and the plant will grow again. It won’t flower this season though; I’ve been robbed of that. While the clematis will regenerate, the unwelcome hostile presence of clematis wilt will continue to hang over the garden and it may strike again and take out other clematis, just on the verge of flower.

While I now have to wait until next season to hopefully see Clematis Chantilly flower again, I can look at pictures of the show from last year in the meantime:

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16 Comments


    1. Hello Mrs Mac, isn’t it just. I had to get my other half to dump everything of the clematis above soil level into the bin. I couldn’t face it. I’ve since planted the large and healthy-looking root ball into a recently prepared new border. I hope I see new shoots bursting from the soil surface in a month or so.

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  1. How sad! I feel your pain, especially since it is such a beautiful plant. I hope your other clematis aren’t harmed.

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    1. Hello Jason, oddly the Clematis in the ground aren’t affected, only the ones planted in pots. Perhaps the additional stress of being restricted to tubs and the soil heating up in the sun because of it makes them more susceptible to Wilt.

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  2. Sunil, Clematis Wilt claimed one of my larger plants this year. It is so strange how it just appears out of nowhere. I have cut mine back to just below ground level and hope it will return next year. I have the same hope for you that Chantilly will be back in 2016.

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    1. Hi Lynn, sorry to hear that, wilt swoops in and swoops out before you even know it. The rootball on the clematis was big and healthy and I really hope I see a small flush this season, followed by a wilt-free show next season!

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  3. I deeply sympathize as I also have it. In my case it killed one stem of a Ruby Glow clematis. I hope the others survive. I am crossing my finger since it has been a week that this one stem died.
    Good luck!

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    1. Hello Alain, when I see a clematis developing wilt I’m in two minds as to whether to try and cut it out and risk damaging surrounding stems, spreading the infection to those, or to leave it in place and risk turning the clematis into a breeding ground for wilt.

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  4. How sad and frustrating. I’m glad to hear that the roots will survive and can grow back. Is it known how fungal wilts spread or conditions that make plants more susceptible to infection?

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    1. Hello Jean, Clematis are very good at coming back from the roots (must happen to them often to have developed the ability to do this so easily). I’ve had several clematis that had had wilt or other accidents that have levelled them to the ground but they usually always come back as long as you remember to continue looking after them even though they look like they’re not there. There are some studies and ideas about wilt but it is still an area open to study. The susceptibility to wilt comes from one particular distant clematis parent of a pair that are the pre-cursor to virtually all the modern large-flowered hybrids.

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  5. I get wilt, too, and I hate it. It attacked one of my plants this year and I cut it back. Actually, I got mad and ripped it and the infected stems popped right off. But they usually come back so all is not lost. But it is a huge pain in my butt! Argh!!

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    1. Hi Tammy, I hate wilt too and the way it strikes just as the plant is beginning to flower, not after, but just as the buds are opening, I find that particularly contemptible and offensive.

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  6. Hello Sunil, really frustrating when this happens, on the upside you have given us all a really good insight into clematis wilt. I got into the habit of planting the viticella group which seems to largely escape this problem, couldnt make any guarantees though.

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    1. Hello Alistair, Viticellas, Tanguticas, Montanas and in fact, most other clematis groups tend not to get wilt. It’s only the Group 2 large flowered hybrids that are susceptible. Unfortunately, that covers most of the Clematis I have.

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  7. It has happened to the best of clematis growers and we share your pain! It really is maddening. I almost stopped growing clematis when it first happened to me. Two gardeners that I respect encouraged to keep on, and they really are worth trying over and over until you get them to a wonderful, mature and wilt free state, right?

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    1. Hello Jayne, I’ve all but decided that clematis in pots just don’t work. It’s not because of the lack of watering, but because in the hot sun, the black trugs heat up to such a temperature that the roots probably cook. I wince at spending £100 for a lovely big terracotta pot that would keep it cool as I would have to buy six so I’m going to try something else from next year and move the potted clematis into the ground where they will hopefully be much happier and suffer less from wilt.

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