Wistful for Wisteria

Story by L. Beth Bonifant | Photography by August Selckmann | Reprinted from Spring 2014
The beauty of wisteria has been the subject of a plethora of renowned artists including, Claude Monet. There have even been famous streets named after this brilliant bloom. (Wisteria Lane is the most well known!) It is because of its picture-perfect presence that we bring you this collection of photos and the specifics on how and where to grow this graceful vine.
 
Wisterias are members of the pea family. Chinese wisteria (W sinensi,s) has been planted in North America as an ornamental since first being imported in the early 1800s. Japanese wisteria (W jloribunda) is similar in both habit and form. Then there is American wisteria (W frutescens). These are three distinct plants, despite the fact that they belong to the same genus. While all are climbing plants, the Chinese and Japanese species take time to flower – up to seven years – so look for flower buds forming if you intend to acquire one. American wisteria should flower in its first season.
 
There are other arguments to be made for “buying American” with this plant. Our American wisteria is better behaved; it doesn’t seem to be possessed with the same demonic tendencies to take over your garden. While still a vigorous grower (25 feet in a few years), it won’t require the same routine pruning to keep it in check. Simply remove undesirable growth while helping the plant achieve the look you’re after.
 
Native wisterias bloom later than the Orientals, after danger of frost, so blooms won’t be damaged. Some also exhibit a shorter and more modest bloom: fom·- to six-inch clusters compared to the six- to 12-inch pendulous blooms of the Orientals. Sad to say, though scented, the fragrance may also pale in comparison. Nevertheless, American wisteria seems more appropriate for home landscape use here and can be quite charming.
 
“Amethyst Falls” produces amethyst-colored blooms in late spring or early summer in Southern Maryland . Our American wisteria is better behaved; it doesn’t seem to have the same tendency to take over your garden that the Orientals do. American wisterias also tend to be repeat or encore bloomers, up to three times each summer. How’s that for American spirit?
 
Eric McKenney with Wentworth Nursery said he has seen beautiful results in customers’ landscapes using both W frutescens varieties. McKenney empha­sized that you should always plant wiste­ria in full sun for best bloom. He suggests training wisteria to be a free-standing tree or “standard” form. To do this, train the new plant to a sturdy five- or six-foot stake. Top the main stem when the desired height is achieved. Continue to snip side shoots along the trunk and prune the top to encourage branching. Still, the best uses for wisteria are on pergolas, trellises, fences and arbors. Just imagine the irresistible, vine-shaded retreat when wisteria is used to create a canopy for your patio. Or picture an arbor heavily blanketed in pendulous, cascading blooms. No matter where you plant it, wisteria is sure to bestow mag­nificent beauty and create a fragrant kingdom of flowers. Hummingbirds and butterflies like it, but it is deer-resistant and virtually unaffected by pests and dis­ease.
 
Once established, wisteria is drought-tolerant and you can forget fer­tilizer, especially one high in nitrogen that will force stem and leaf growth at the expense of flowers. A spring application of fertilizer high in phosphorus and potash can promote flowering in wisteria that has been declining in blooms or has yet to flower. But the bottom line is that wisteria won’t need much coddling.
The great impressionist artist Oaude Monet (1840-1926) painted and gar­dened at his beloved Givemy in France. Most of us will recall images of the well­known wooden Japanese footbridge over Monet’s lily pond there, where the wiste­ria still hangs like clumps of ghostly grapes each May. So whether you intend to plant it, paint it or both, wisteria is a graceful, picturesque plant with a haunt­ing quality that would make most mere mortals wistful for wisteria. ♦


It is important to note that non-native wis­teria can be considered invasive. The seedpods of all wisteria are toxic if ingested American wisteria (W frutescens) is avail­able at Wentworth Nursery in Charlotte Hall, Oakville and Prince Frederick; The Greenery in Hollywood; and Cream Of The Crop in Charlotte Hall. Many nurseries no longer carry the more “invasive” Chinese and Japanese varieties.