Elizabeth Wright
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Working Wealdon. A Cause For Celebration

They were Gold Medal Winners at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, the Queen admired them, Nigel Havers found them enchanting and Gloria Honneyford wanted to ‘take them all home.’ The object of all this attention was a new, unusual and spectacular variety of clematis, called ‘Celebration,’ exhibited by professional Sussex grower Fred Godfrey, or as he is better known by, “Green Fingered Fred.”

Fred has been growing clematis, or ‘clems’ as he calls them, since 1987. At that time his nursery was producing 160,000 plants a year and were market leaders, probably being amongst the top ten growers in the world. This was done in just two acres of ground and a quarter of an acre under glass.

Clematis are probably one of the most popular climbing plants in the UK, known as The Queen of The Climbers, the plant was introduced to Britain in the late 16th century, but it was during the Victorian era when ‘clematis mania’ spread. Several species were introduced into the UK from many areas around the world, which allowed nurserymen and gardeners to begin to experiment, cross-breeding them to produce hundreds of new varieties, many of which are still around today.

Fred said, “I have always loved the plant and at that time there was a gap in the market so we grew them in a wide variety of twenty different colours. We produced clematis outside, which resulted in bushy, strong, hardy plants with short nodes when everyone else was growing them in greenhouses. Under glass they get tall and lanky, and our plants, being grown outside, took longer to grow, cost more money to do, but was a better product.

“We tracked down a lot of old varieties and re-introduced them and we did a lot of work. We teamed up with Uno Kivistik, who was a breeder in Estonia, he had varieties that we took on board, and we were the only people in the UK with them.

“Clematis are buttercup family, so clematis are all about roots, and often people will plant a ‘clem’ and it will sit there and not do anything, but they don’t understand what the roots are, and the next year they really take off. Nice cool, moist root runs is what they need, and an adequate supply of water. To grow really well, they need fertiliser once a year, either bone meal or blood, fish and bone, which has high potash which helps to form the flowers.

“Celebration is the only large flowered hybrid clematis in the world that has golden leaves, and it was bred totally by accident from the classic ‘Jackmanii Alba’ when the DNA dramatically changed to produce a branch sport. We discovered that the gold pigment in the leaves came from the mixing of the DNA within the plant itself. I’ve had that plant since 1993, and I wasn’t sure about it, so we grew it for quite a few years to make sure that it didn’t revert to green and it didn’t, so we thought it was wonderful. It is a stunning plant, with strong, brilliant gold foliage and enchanting double flowers that are ‘washed through’ with a distinctive cobalt blue. The double flowers blossom fully in May and June and continue to produce single flowers through July, August and September, giving maximum enjoyment all summer long.

“We went to a breeders’ agent and he made a lot of nurseries all over the world aware of it. We also had to apply for Plant Breeders’ Right, which is a copyright, so if we were to market the plant anyone growing it will have to pay us a royalty. So the agent got so many people all over the world interested in Celebration that it looked like we would have a market for millions so we decided rather than traditionally propagating it, which is a bit of a slow way of doing it, we would clone them in a laboratory.

“In a period of eighteen months to two years we went from being able to produce a couple of hundred a year to as many as we liked, maybe millions. The next stage was to send samples (little plugs of plants) to growers all around the world, so they could try out the plant and see if they wanted to grow it. We sent them out to Japan, America, South America, France, Holland Italy, anywhere to the elite of clematis growers all around the world. Then I sat and waited, but nobody contacted me. Not one of the growers that I’d sent plants to came back. I was surprised, and when I asked why, the answer I got was ‘thanks, but no thanks.’ I couldn’t understand it. We’d potted a few of the plugs that came from micro propagation at the nursery ourselves and I was absolutely gobsmacked to see that the plants had reverted back to green. How embarrassing it was for me having sent all of those plants out to hundreds of nurserymen who had expected them to have golden leaves not green. We took a big knock with that. But some of the growers have now come back and are buying the plant.

“So we went back and decided to propagate them traditionally, by cuttings. We worked very hard until we had enough plants and then we decided to launch them at the Chelsea Flower Show. This is the world’s flower show. I got together with Jonathan Gooch, a good friend of mine and we built the stand together. Besides Celebration we showed about forty-five varieties of clematis. The reaction from the visitors was a bit like trying Marmite, seventy-five per cent loved Celebration, and twenty-five per cent hated it.”

Sadly Fred didn’t get to meet the Queen when she visited Chelsea; because of the threat of terrorism the show was closed whilst she was looking around. But he did meet plenty of celebrities, including Nigel Havers, Ringo Starr, Piers Morgan and Gloria Honneyford.

When the show was finished all the plants were sold off, and soon the orders were coming in. said Fred, “Celebration could be a one hit wonder, or it could take its place amongst the garden greats. It is very easy to grow, is very vigorous, and is so different from other clems. Now we are on a breeding programme to try and produce a red Celebration.”


Fred’s advice on ‘How to Grow Celebration’

Growing in a border: For maximum success use a friable humus rich soil with access to adequate moisture. Dig a hole, slightly bigger than the depth of the rootball. Add well-rotted organic matter such as manure or compost. Water the plant thoroughly after planting.

Grow in a pot: Growing Clematis Celebration in a pot is easy. Make sure the pot is at least 25 litres. Use a loam-based compost such as John Innes no.1. Cover the surface of the soil with gravel or pebbles.

Pruning your plants: Pruning is optional, but if you want to produce a balanced, vigorous plant then you need to prune immediately after the double spring flowers have finished.

What to avoid: The key to a beautiful Clematis Celebration is maximum sun and minimum feeding so avoid shady areas and overfeeding. Celebration is so strong and vigorous that it needs hardly any fertiliser at all yet still grows beautifully. If you do overfeed it or after potting in fresh compost the foliage will not achieve the amazing brilliant gold colour until the surplus fertilizer has been used up by the plant.

Clematis stems need to grow on a support; either a trellis, bamboo canes or a wire framework. For more unusual displays they can be trained over arches, bowers, tree stumps, or pillars.

Published in Aspect County Magazine – ‘Working Wealden’

© Elizabeth Wright