Wisteria, friend or foe?

Sublime Vines – Caught in Wisteria’s Mystery: It’s gardener’s choice on ‘la belle dame sans merci’

Wisteria Wisdom

Fragrant wisteria climb in and around Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa. "Fragrant

Photo by Larry Albee



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spring’s cacophony of color — brazen forsythia, gaudy pink trees, glow-in-the-dark daffodils — one
soft lovely flower stands out, or rather, it hangs down: wisteria, whose name suggests its gentle look, though
not its take-over tendencies.

   Songs that celebrate wisteria don’t come readily to mind, and unlike "Rose" and "Lily" and all the flowery rest, girls don’t seem to be named for this woody, deciduous, flowering vine, a member of the pea family. Is that because wisteria, despite its beguiling exterior, has a heart of cold steel? It is, without doubt, the horticultural epitome of "clinging vine."

   Wisteria is cultivated for its showy, fragrant, purplish or white flowers in hanging "panicles," or branched clusters. Each branch is a "raceme" (ray-SEEM), with blooms arranged singly along it, as with lily of the valley. Superficially, wisteria flowers can resemble those of the lilac shrub. Reputed to be as common as honeysuckle in the South, profusely growing wisterias are less common in this area, and the word of mouth on the vine often amounts to "don’t plant it if you can’t control it — and if you do plant it, watch out for your house, your trees and…" However, the vine’s potential for great beauty can override all warnings.

   "There comes a point when beauty touches a place that is not quite real, and wisterias sometime reach that place…when they do, there is magic in the air," writes Pegi Ballister-Howells in her "New Jersey Gardener’s Guide."


Photo courtesy

Longwood Gardens,

Kennett Square, Pa.

   A display area at Longwood Gardens, in Kennett Square, Pa., features numerous aromatic Japanese
wisterias that have been trained into tiered tree forms supported by upright poles. Looking from a distance
like bunches of lavender, purple and white grapes, the triangular flower clusters are an amazing sight —
worth a visit in early May, either in person or even via the Web site. (www.LongwoodGardens.org/Bloom/05MayPhotos/05MayPhotos.htm).

   For some, wisterias’ greenish-brown, bean-like seed pods, typically 4 to 6 inches long and velvety in feel, are at least as interesting as its blooms — and they last through the winter. Collected and kept inside, they’ve been know to unexpectedly "explode" open in the middle of the night with a sound audible on another floor.

   To grow wisterias, Charles Peterson, owner of the nursery-landscape business on Lawrenceville Road, Lawrence Township, unhesitatingly advises "wet feet," and cutting back hard. Knowing this "super-hardy vine is very aggressive once it gets started," he favors training it on metal or a very sturdy wooden structure. Having given the devil its due, Mr. Peterson suggests a layered way to enjoy wisterias: for both good shade and flower color, grow it on a heavy-duty pergola over a patio. Then, those with second-floor rooms can enjoy an aerial view of the flowering vine.

   Debbie Morris, manager of Kale’s garden center, on Carter Road, Princeton, turns to a source she calls, familiarly, "The Dirr Manual." From Michael A. Dirr’s thick guide to woody landscape plants, one can pick up intriguing exotica about wisterias.

   For instance, Wisteria Floribunda, the Japanese variety probably most commonly grown, twines in a clock-wise direction, while the Chinese variety, Wisteria Sinensis, twines counter-clockwise. Internationalists, ignore this literal culture difference at your peril!


Photo courtesy

Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pa.

   Ms. Morris says pruning several times a year promotes better flowering. Even so, her rule of (green) thumb is that it can be at least five years before a wisteria first blooms. Meanwhile, since those velvety seed pods seem to abound in the area, it might be fun to plant some wisteria seeds — they germinate fast, Ms. Morris says — and then train up a potted wisteria tree.

   And about flowering, depending on whom you talk to and/or what you read, there are still other variables that can affect wisterias’ blooming: named cultivars; plant age; exposure; well-drained soil and pH level; root-pruning; low nitrogen (which promotes excess vegetative growth); use of super phosphate. And so on. Writing about this perennial in her perennial best seller, Ms. Ballister-Howells sums it up: "Failure to bloom is this plant’s most frustrating problem."

   The subject of blooming wisteria invariably leads to the Johnson Atelier in Mercerville. There, thickly winding and muscular-looking wisteria vines climb the front of the building. Appropriately sculptural, they make a stupendous relief. But they don’t flower. Never have. And maybe never will.

   The wisterias were blooming at the Atelier’s sister institution, Grounds for Sculpture, when facilities director Bruce Daniels spoke about the un-flowering Atelier vines. They were planted before the wisterias at the sculpture garden, he says, ruling out age as a reason, and they’re trimmed by the same landscaper. He has been given a wide range of advice by various specialists, he says, with space and exposure as just two possible variables.

   But for now, it remains "the mystery of the Atelier’s wisteria." And those in the vicinity at flowering time are advised to visit Grounds for Sculpture’s pergola near the amphitheater or the big arbor at the north end of the museum building.

   Wisteria: friend or foe? It’s gardener’s choice on "la belle dame sans merci."



   THE Ohio State University Extension (Horticulture and Crop Science) reports that the biggest
frustration gardeners face when growing wisteria is that plants have a longer than average juvenile period
and sometimes fail to bloom as expected.

   The Extension suggests starting with grafted plants or those produced from cuttings rather
than those grown from seed.

   A plant will also fail to bloom under the following circumstances:

   • It does not receive full sunlight;

   • There is excessive vegetative growth that may have been stimulated by excess
nitrogen fertilizer;

   • It is pruned heavily in winter and spring, which encourages vigorous, vegetative

   • It is pruned improperly.

   Also, in severe winters, flower buds may be injured or killed. The following practices
may help induce non-blooming vines to flower:

   • A heavy application of superphosphate (0-20-0) in early spring (3-5 pounds
per 100 square feet);

   • Severe pruning of new growth in late spring or early summer;

   • Root pruning in late fall.

   Wisterias do not transplant well and usually suffer a severe setback if moved. Large specimens
sometimes do not recover.

   Wisteria may be attacked by insects or plant disease, though neither is especially common.
Should plants show symptoms of insect or disease damage, check with your local Extension office for diagnosis
and management ideas.