Clematis viticella was not thought to be the most useful medicinal plant in the Garden in 1648, and both John Gerard and John Parkinson said that “the use of these in Physicke is not yet knowne”. However, related species were thought to be “causticke plants, that is, fiery hot, and blistering the skinne”, making them the logical choice to use on painful skin conditions: both Gerard and Parkinson recommended them “to take away scurfe [possibly eczema], leprye [leprosy], or such like deformities of the skin.”
Clematis viticella and other species of clematis were more likely to have been grown for their appearance than for their medicinal potential. Gerard writes that “they may very well serve to make Arbours, in Gardens, Orchards, or other places for pleasure, for thereunto they are most fit”.
The names: a colourful past
Clematis viticella appears in the 1648 catalogue of the Botanic Garden as ‘Clematis peregrina caerulea’. Things get a little more complicated in the second edition ten years later, as there are three different types listed: one with single blue flowers (‘Clematis peregrina caer[ulea] Fl[ore] Simplici’), one with single red flowers (‘Clematis peregrina fl[ore] rubro simp[lici]’), and one with double blue flowers (‘Clematis peregrina fl[ore] Caer[ulea] pleno’). When writing his Herbal, Gerard called the last of these ‘Clematis caerulea flore pleno’ instead, which is listed as a previous name for the species Linnaeus called Clematis viticella. This binomial has remained the accepted scientific name since then.
Clematis viticella is not native to the British Isles, originally being found in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, and eastwards into Asia. It was first grown in Britain in around 1569, so would have been introduced to the country not long before.