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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
And how about this beautiful folding screen?
But here is perhaps my favourite: ‘Paradise Flycatchers and Wisteria’ by Ren Yi from 1943.
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
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 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