Wednesday Weed – Wisteria

Wisteria

Dear Readers, you might have read headlines on social media recently about ‘wisteria hysteria’. There are houses in West London where the wisteria has grown so splendidly that the owners are fed up sick with Instagrammers standing outside and taking photographs. In particular, there is there is this darling house with a pink door. I can absolutely see why anyone would want to stop and take a picture.

Photo One by https://www.instagram.com/amanda.phillips.london/

Wisteria in Holland Park (Photo One)

In East Finchley the wisterias are rather younger and therefore not quite so splendid, but there are examples in the garden of the Bald-Faced Stag, and several in the County Roads.

County Roads Wisteria

There are two very common species of wisteria. Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) twines counterclockwise, whilst Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) twines clockwise. If only I’d known this before running all over East Finchley taking photos I could maybe have made this post more useful from an identification point of view. But there we go! Chinese wisteria has more flowers, but those of Japanese are longer, with a maximum length of nearly half a metre. I would hazard a guess that the plant above is of the Japanese variety. The flowers of both species are said to smell of grapes, and maybe anyone lucky enough to be growing a wisteria could confirm.

Bald-Faced Stag gardens with wisteria

Wisterias are members of the pea family, as a glance at those leguminous flowers can confirm. They are mostly from China, Japan and Korea,but there are several species that are native to the US.  Like all peas wisteria fixes nitrogen in the soil. Unlike  most peas, however, it can grow into a monster: the plant in the photo below was planted in 1870 in Ashikaga, Japan, and covered half an acre in 2008. Wisteria can be pernickety and loathe to flower, but they can also be thugs: a mature plant can, as their Wikipedia entry puts it ‘ collapse latticework, crush thin wooden posts, and even strangle large trees’. I once lived next door to a wisteria that we christened ‘the triffid’ – its ‘fingers’ would reach across to our balcony, in through the window, through the gaps in the front door frame and would probably have invited themselves in for dinner if we hadn’t cut them back every so often. However, I have never seen anything as pretty as when this plant flowered at the same time as my neighbour’s yellow climbing rose. So, this is an exquisite plant, but not for the faint of heart.

Wisteria can be reluctant to flower before it reaches maturity, but in Chinese Wisteria maturation may not occur until the plant is twenty years old. I am told that being unkind to the plant by ‘physically abusing the main trunk or root pruning or drought-stress’ can force it into flower, but I do wonder if this would also shorten the life of the poor plant. Giving a nitrogen-fixing plant yet more nitrogen is also a good way to delay flowering, although it might need some potassium and phosphate.

Japanese and Chinese wisteria are naturalised in some parts of the south east of the USA and are considered an invasive plant in these areas.

Photo Two by By Namazu-tron - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3874300

Wisteria in flower at Ashikaga Park (Photo Two)

I was surprised to find that, as with its close relative laburnum, the seeds of wisteria are poisonous, and have caused gastroenteritis in children and pets in many countries.  In Japan the leaves are blanched and eaten, as are the flowers. I note that you can find a recipe for wisteria and redbud spring rolls here, for my North American readers.

Photo Three by By Roger Culos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31864476

Wisteria seeds (Photo Three)

You can apparently make wine from wisteria flowers too, but I have searched in vain for a recipe. Instead, for any London-based readers, here is news of a wisteria-themed wine bar that is about to open in Holborn, and very swanky it looks too.

Photo Four from https://secretldn.com/nyetimber-secret-garden/

Photo Four

Wisteria is very long-lived, given the right conditions, and is often seen as a symbol of immortality. In  Japanese kabuki theatre it is symbolic of Love, Sensuality, Support, Sensitivity, Bliss and Tenderness. In Korean folklore, however, the plant is seen as representing conflict: it is said that two sisters were in love with the same warrior, and when they discovered this they threw themselves, fighting, into a lake and were transformed into a wisteria. Their lover promptly threw himself into the same lake, and became a nettle tree or hackberry (Celtis sp.) Ever since, wisterias in Korea have scrambled over nettle trees, occasionally strangling them or pulling them down. I am intrigued by the way that the Japanese symbolism seems to concentrate on wisteria’s beauty, while the Korean view is that it is a bit of a thug. Both things are, of course, true. The Victorian view was that the plant symbolised over-passionate love or obsession, again looking at the plant’s growth habit. Poor plant. Like so many of the living things that surround us, it is blamed for being what it is, a vigorous vine. It seems to me that humans get very cross with disobedience and inconvenience in the natural world, a bit like toddlers stamping their feet because their mothers won’t obey them.

Photo Five by By User:Geographer, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41512940

Nettle tree (Celtis sinensis) (Photo Five)

There are many examples of wisteria in art, particularly from the East, as you might expect. I rather love this depiction of a ‘Lady in a Wisteria Kimono’ by Mizuno Toshikata. I love the way that you can almost smell the rain. I wonder why she is looking behind her? Is she expecting someone to follow her, or is she alarmed?

Lady in a Wisteria Kimono by Mizuno Toshikata (1900) (Public Domain)

And how about this beautiful folding screen?

Folding screen by Maruyama Okyo (circa 1800) (Public Domain)

But here is perhaps my favourite: ‘Paradise Flycatchers and Wisteria’ by Ren Yi from 1943.

Paradise Flycatchers and Wisteria (Ren Yi – 1943) (Public Domain)

And here is a poem. I like this because it sums up what it’s like to be ignorant of something that everybody else knows, and how being given the answer can feel like a small blessing. If you haven’t come across Billy Collins before, have a look. He sometimes tumbles into the whimsical in my humble opinion, but often he hits the nail right squarely on the head.

Field Guide – Billy Collins

No one I ask knows the name of the flower
we pulled the car to the side of the road to pick
and that I point to dangling purple from my lapel.

I am passing through the needle of spring
in North Carolina, as ignorant of the flowers of the south
as the woman at the barbecue stand who laughs
and the man who gives me a look as he pumps the gas

and everyone else I ask on the way to the airport
to return to where this purple madness is not seen
blazing against the sober pines and rioting along the
   roadside.

On the plane, the stewardess is afraid she cannot answer
my question, now insistent with the fear that I will leave
the province of this flower without its sound in my ear.

Then, as if he were giving me the time of day, a passenger
looks up from his magazine and says wisteria.

Photo Credits

Photo One by https://www.instagram.com/amanda.phillips.london/

Photo Two by By Namazu-tron – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3874300

Photo Three by By Roger Culos – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31864476

Photo Four from https://secretldn.com/nyetimber-secret-garden/

Photo Five by By User:Geographer, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41512940

9 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Wisteria

  1. Anne

    Ah another beautiful read about a beautiful flower and an interesting poem to boot! I have always wished for a wisteria in my garden and am annually reminded of this when I see their blossoms in the gardens of much older houses in our town. Your description of their vigorous and ‘thuggish’ growth habits makes me realise that their flowers are probably best viewed in the garden of someone else. The seeds are interesting: a friend has a wisteria that has twined itself up the side of her house and along the length of the balcony. At the right time of the year one can get quite a start while sitting out there for the seed pods open with a loud crackle and pop, flinging their seeds out with force.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      How interesting Anne, I didn’t realise that the seeds were explosive! I guess the plant needs to fire them as far away from the hungry parent plant as possible….

      Reply
  2. Toffeeapple

    I didn’t know those things about the plant – thank you for the enlightenment.

    We once had lunch at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons at about this time of year; whilst visiting the facilities I could smell an overpowering perfume and assumed that the staff had used a cheap and nasty Pot Pourri but it turned out that the perfume from their Wisteria was coming in through the open windows!

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I once stayed at Le Manoir (back in the days when I was slightly richer 🙂 ) and I loved it. There were crayfish in the pond and toads on the paths. But fancy wisteria having such a cheap and nasty smell!

      Reply
  3. gertloveday

    When I was a child we had a kind of wisteria grotto. They were popular in Melbourne at the time. I still remember the fragrance, and the bees. What a glorious tree the nettle tree.

    Reply
  4. Alyson

    Another fascinating post. Loved it. I don’t know if you watched the television show Indian Summers a couple of years ago but the main house in the drama, in Simla, had the most most beautiful wisteria covering the front of it. Will never forget it now.

    Reply
  5. tonytomeo

    For us, the various cultivars of Chinese wisteria are the only common ones. Japanese wisteria if quite rare. I happened to procure Kentucky wisteria because it is so docile, but it is nothing like the more common types. The floral trusses protrude outward like bottlebrush flowers, rather than hang pendulously like wisteria flowers should. Nonetheless, I really liked it because it was so well behaved, and smelled like wisteria.

    Reply
      1. tonytomeo

        There is also something to be said for pretty flowers. I happen to like Kentucky wisteria, but I would be hesitant to recommend it to someone else.

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