Edith Malek was not always royalty. The ‘Clematis Queen’ ascended to the throne after her years of great appreciation for the ‘aristocrat of climbers’ finally led to founding the American Clematis Society over a decade ago. Her highness will talk about her favorite subject to members and friends of the Palisades Garden Club on Monday, March 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Woman’s Club, 901 Haverford. ’In 1994, I was working at a small nursery in Irvine and one of the local sales reps brought his truck around in which he had several clematis samples,’ Malek recalls. ‘ I thought I was going to pass out and go to heaven. I thought, they can’t grow here in Irvine, but I didn’t let that dampen my spirit. I bought seven three-gallon pots, $28 apiece. That was a lot of money back then.’ Malek’s dream soon turned serious when on a trip to England that same year; she bought two books on the subject. ‘I was reading them and my hair follicles hurt.’ Nobody was talking about clematis back then, Malek recalls. But she kept doing her own thing, and even started presenting programs on the species. ‘I was in my princess stage,’ she says. ’I realized that I had to help them along, get horticulturalists familiar with the multiple possibilities of this plant.’ A colleague, Gloria Leibach, who was the president of the South Bay Rose Society at that time, encouraged Malek to start a society. ‘She said, ‘I’d join the society if you’d start one.’ I had no idea what I was doing; we started with nine people. Now we have over 350 members.’ For the most part, Malek says that gardeners fall in love with the big hybrid soft flowers, but she is drawn to the smaller ones like the crispa, which are tiny, the size of a marshmallow. Clematis grow most everywhere in the United States, but with complete comfort in zones 4-11, those with mild temperatures and a little cold chill. The varieties are limited in the warmer zones. The plants come in a range of rich hues and varied bloom times, which enable gardeners to have masses of bloom from late winter to late fall. While the flowers give a good show in the ground, they also make an excellent cut flower with a two-week shelf life, Malek says. She has some 200 plants in her yard, one-third in the ground and the remainder in containers. ’I trial them so I can tell our members which ones I really like,’ Malek says. ‘There are more than the jackmanii (the first large-flowered hybrid), and if I don’t try them we’re never going to get beyond the seven favorites.’ Malek has a degree in horticulture, and for six years she ran a floral business until the 1990s, when the economy took a downturn. She then got a job with the Irvine Company; she was the first female gardener on the 80-member team. She proudly recalls that her ‘location’ was Fashion Island, where she took care of the pond, the poplar trees and changing out the concrete planters each season. These days, she is knee-deep in overseeing and directing the society, but Malek looks back on her floral design days nostalgically. ‘I came out of retirement last year when my daughter got married,’ she says. ‘She told me that I could use clematis in her bouquet, but not to go overboard. This was hard for me because I had been collecting clematis, carefully processing and saving them for a couple of weeks to use in the arrangements. So I started putting in roses and delphinium, and then added just a few clematis. which bloomed into a big clematis extravaganza. I’m all about show,’ she admits. Her daughter loved it.
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