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Why Are My Clematis Vines Turning Brown?

Clematis is one of America’s favorite flowering vines with showy flowers of purple, rosy pink, violet, blue-violet, red, yellow, or snow-white.

But this woody, twining, perennial beauty comes with one big Achilles heel – a tendency to suddenly turn brown all over, almost as if the plant were torched overnight.

The problem, thought to be caused by a fungus, is a common clematis malady called “clematis wilt.” It’s a particular threat to the big-flowering hybrids that most gardeners like best.

Clematis wilt is usually not fatal

The good news is that clematis wilt usually doesn’t kill the plant. When wilt-killed stems are cut off, new shoots usually grow up to replace them – often in the same season.

The bad news is that the problem can recur year after year and happen just as the flower buds are opening.

Sometimes wilt affects just one or more shoots. Other times it can brown an entire plant.

Stopping clematis wilt is difficult, but a good first step is keeping plants as healthy as possible.

Wilted Clematis

Aschen / iStock / via Getty Images

Four ways to keep Clematis Healthy:

  1. Prune out diseased stems and remove diseased leaves (including dropped ones) to reduce the number of spores that can re-infect vines next year.
  2. Keep plants watered in dry weather. Water the ground, not over the leaves.
  3. Maintain about two inches of fresh mulch around the base of plants. This can keep soil-borne fungi from splashing up onto plant stems and lower leaves.
  4. Fertilize in early spring and again in June with a granular rose or tomato fertilizer (or one close to a nutrition breakdown of 5-10-10).

Preventive fungicide sprays haven’t been found to be very effective.

Don’t dig up and remove wilted clematis for dead at the first sign of trouble, though. Give wilted plants a chance to bounce back next season. The disease doesn’t always occur every season or with the same severity. Also, plants sometimes become less prone to wilt as they establish and mature.

Even when wilt does recur, the problem may not affect all stems, which can be enough to salvage at least a decent performance.

Wilt-resistant Clematis varieties

The best way to deal with clematis wilt is to select a naturally disease-resistant type in the first place – or think about replacing a perennially ravaged clematis variety with a more wilt-resistant variety.

Small-leafed Italian clematis types (Clematis viticella) and their hybrids are the most wilt-resistant.

Wilt-resistant clematis varieties recommended by the International Clematis Society include:

  • ‘Abundance’ (red), 
  • ‘Alba Luxurians’ (white), 
  • ‘Betty Corning’ (rose-lilac),
  • ‘Blue Angel’ (pale blue-violet), 
  • ‘Emilia Plater’ (pale blue)
  •  ‘Etoile Violette’
  • ‘Polish Spirit’ (violet)
  • ‘Rubra’ (red)
  • ‘‘Madame Julia Correvon’ (rosy-red),
  • ‘Minuet’ (white with red veins)
  • ‘Purpurea Plena Elegans’ (red-purple)
  • ‘Venosa Violacea’ (white with violet veins)
  • ‘Walenburg’ (red-purple) 
  • ‘Gravetye Beauty’ (red aging to pink)
  • ‘Princess Diana’ (red-pink)

Some larger varieties recommended by the International Clematis Society include:

  • ‘Niobe’ (red)
  • ‘The President’ (violet-blue)
  • ‘Comtesse de Bouchaud’ (pink)
  • ‘Hagley Hybrid’ (pink)
  • ‘Jackmanii’ (dark violet) 

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