Clematis Wilt: Recognizing the Fiend and Dealing With it!

Clematis wilt is a disease caused by a fungus that attacks the structures inside clematis stems. Water is unable to move from the roots to the leaves and the whole plant wilts. The plant droops from the top down, foliage turns slimy and black and it happens very quickly - within a matter of a few hours. Usually only the large, early flowering varieties suffer from clematis wilt, but there are other conditions that will show similar symptoms. There are several things we suggest you look for, before you write off your prized plant as a lost-to-wilt cause.

1. Vole damage is a possibility. Voles are related to moles, but moles eat insects in the ground and voles eat plant roots. Check the ground all around the plants for 3-4 feet and look for holes 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. The holes are flush with the ground and can be tricky to see. They look like this:

The stick is for illustration only.

If you find any holes, voles are your problem. In that case, put some bait in the hole. Check out our sure-fire vole-bait. It is harmless to pretty much everything but small rodents, so your pets and children will be safe! Once you have baited, cut back the dead stems, water very well (several gallons) and fertilize the plant. It will take a while for your plant to recover, but they almost always come back. We have had some serious vole damage at times!

Vole Bait Recipe
1/2 cup peanut butter
3 vitamin D tablets, crushed to a powder
Oats or birdseed
Mix peanut butter and Vitamin D together and roll in oats or birdseed.
Place inside a 2 inch cardboard tube and bury in a tunnel or where damage is occurring.

2. Take a look at how much water your plants have had lately. Clematis use an amazing amount of water and, instead of wilting, leaves and even entire stems can turn dark and brittle if they don't get enough. They need either an inch of rain a week from Mother Nature or 4-5 gallons from us (for a mature plant - "babies" need somewhat less). The difference between lack of water and clematis wilt damage can be seen if you look carefully - clematis wilt usually happens very quickly and the plant wilts from the top down. If the clematis lacks water, it will turn brown from the bottom up, usually over a period of time.

3. Broken stems prevent water from reaching the leaves and create conditions that look just like wilt. Check the bottom of the stems for broken pieces just to be sure; Curtis the Wonder Dog broke one once, just by wagging his tail!

Finally, if none of these are your problem, you may indeed have Clematis Wilt. Wilt is caused by a fungus and there is no cure or treatment. The "authorities" can't even agree on which fungus causes wilt! It is more apt to bother young plants and they will sometimes "outgrow" it. Clematis wilt is one of the reasons we recommend the small flowered clematis over the early large flowered hybrids. Most of the early large flowered varieties we do carry are reasonably wilt-proof.

If your clematis wilts, there are a couple of things you can do. First, cut the wilting vine off well below where there is any wilting, then give it a large dose of water and perhaps some fertilizer. Second, some folks think that a good dose of a liquid seaweed product will help cure a fungal problem; it certainly wouldn't hurt to try some. Spray the foliage with it, diluted according to the package directions and maybe give it a dose next time you fertilize as well. We can't promise it will help, but we know several folks who swear by it.

We believe in the "Three Strikes and You're Out" rule. We'll give a plant two chances, but if it wilts a third time, we "shovel prune" it and replace it will a less difficult variety. There are too many good clematis to grow to waste time on the finicky varieties!