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Clematis – The Petals Are Sepals

Many large-flowered clematises have flowers that are more beautiful after the petals fall. Nelly Moser and Will Goodwin are very fine in flower. The aftermath of the Clematis flower petals falling off (below) is more restrained, yet sublime.

old clematis flowers
The petals sepals dropped off this large-flowered clematis only a couple of days ago.

But those petals are not petals. Clematis, along with many hydrangeas, have elongated sepals. Sepals are leaves that provide protection to flowers.

Technically speaking, both sepals and petals are modified leaves. Petals assist the flower with pollination. The configuration and shape of petals encourage different kinds of pollinators. We are all familiar with bees, butterflies, and moths as pollinators…but what I never really thought about until very recently (as recently as reading this N.Y. Times article) is that different flowers are adapted to attract different species. Moon flowers attract moths, and of course, there are predatory plants with flowers adapted to attract prey.

If you take a look at the excellent drawing of the parts of a flower provided by the American Museum of Natural History, you will see the sepals below the flower. The rosebuds shown on old rose Lamarque below are currently covered by sepals. They protect the flower as it develops.

shrub roses
Carefree Beauty – the green sepals are beneath the flower bud.

I first learned clematis do not have petals while paging through Flora of the Southern United States by Alvan Wentworth Chapman. In casually browsing the book, I was surprised to read: CLEMATIS. Petals none.

Dr. Chapman, a doctor, and botanist who lived and wrote during the 1800’s, published Flora of the Southern United States in 1860. He wrote the book while living in Georgia and edited it at Harvard University.  Flora of the Southern United States is widely respected for its place in early American botanical research.

Authors who pen tomes with words like ‘flora’ and ‘United States’ in the title do not tend to make many mistakes. It’s true. Clematis, famed for being among the showiest and ornamental vines in our gardens, do not have petals. They have sepals.

Clematis Candida
Clematis Candida – those are beautiful sepals.

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