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Green Acre #4: Wisteria Hysteria


This unfortunately is not Gardener Cavanaugh’s wisteria. The gardener herself recently took this picture, and the one on the opening page, at Longwood Gardens, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, so she could remind herself how wisteria vines are supposed to bloom and, in general, cooperate with the gardener’s plans. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

APART FROM THE pathetic wisteria that gallops across the roof of the garage (which we will get to momentarily), the trumpet vine was the dumbest idea for my bathtub-size garden.

I first saw it many years ago, in Rehoboth Beach, framing a restaurant entrance.

What an exotic transition I thought it announced from the hurly-burly scene on the street where the halter-topped and coconut-scented beach-goers wandered, dripping pizza and ice cream. Being as this was so early on in my gardening, um, career, I had no idea what it was except that it looked fabulously tropical and was heavy with flowers and my little id cried out I WANT ONE.

Amazingly, it took years to find in a garden center. I don’t know if this was because the trumpet vine was once uncommon or if it had been in garden centers all along but I hadn’t noticed—or if the wise purveyors of plants knew that this was a mad weed capable of smothering everything in its path, dueling only with the mighty wisteria for dominance; King Kong vs. Godzilla vs. the tulip.

It is clearly called invasive in every article I’ve read after I bought and planted it.

What is it about the word invasive that I consistently choose to ignore? Ha, I say to myself, invasive for someone else perhaps. Not me. Like, everyone else will eventually romp in Elysian Fields except for…hey, I’ll miss (some) of you! That was an aside.

My four-year-old trumpet vine is just now coming into bloom, which might be nice if one could see it. The “thought” was that it would grow on the wall behind the cherry tree—oh wait, that was another wrong move—and climb up the wonderfully curlicued wrought-iron arch that I would show you except that it’s smothered in vines and might as well be a couple of sticks and some wire, and the cherry is so enormous that the only way I can take a photo is by precariously leaning over the back porch rail and sticking the camera through the branches of the rose of Sharon.

I imagine the vine is very pretty on the other side of the wall, where our neighbors can enjoy it.

On the other hand, there was no difficulty finding a wisteria, which we planted our first summer in the house. Our neighbor Pat had one over her garage, fabulously full, dripping purple frills, and so softly and delightfully scented that it never provoked nausea.

Cannily siting ours in a location identical to hers, we have waited 33 years for it to do more than snicker and spit forth a couple of blooms a season.

We’ve tried Epsom salts and hacking off roots and pruning and not pruning and, nada.  What we do see are wisteria shoots every-damn-where. They tangle with the honeysuckle and the white flower vine and the ivy, shoot up to choke the roses, and slither along underground to pop up and throttle the jasmine.

The one positive is the galloping-over-the-garage-roof habit it has, sending foamy waves of green skyward from early spring until late fall and so obscuring the ladders and columns and chimney caps and other whatnots that have taken, it appears, root.

Which leads me indirectly to a recent brunch and a patch of wisteria wisdom.

Tom and Steve take care of a handful of gardens in Georgetown. Seven or eight, I think they said as I had my nose in a bloody mary at the time.

Enough clients, at any rate, to afford them a two-month holiday post-Christmas tinsel-hanging and poinsettia-ing in the grand homes of their employers. Clearly they choose their clients very well.

One happens to be the wife of a near-president.

This leads me to a thought. There are three types of self-employed: the Tom and Steves; the folks in the parking lot at Home Depot  looking for work; and people like me, who just hope to have enough for dentures should they live so long.

This is not to take away from Tom and Steve, who are tremendously talented—they just know how to play the game—and recognize that frequently the more money a client has the more they want to pay. Tom and Steve are happy to oblige.

I’ve got a talent or two as well—some of which, I modestly say, might equal theirs—but charge for it? Aiiee! Even the word makes me cringe. If something comes easily, what’s it worth? Oh, more the fool me. Maybe one day I’ll learn, and have enough for implants when the time comes.

The near-president’s wife, to return to the point of this story, has a fabulous white wisteria in her Georgetown garden and another at her place in Boston. Both are tended by her Boston gardener, a man with a particular knack, who is therefore flown to Washington several times a year so he can tend the other. Tom and Steve have been observing his ministrations for some time.

This seemed a fine opportunity to pluck the brains of some high-priced talent who have plucked the brains of some high-priced talent.

I told them that at first I tried watchful waiting, like men do with prostate cancer, since I read early on that it can take seven years for a new plant to bloom.

When spring of the eighth year dawned, I stood under the now-mighty vine, which sprawled across the garage roof, flinging tendrils upwards to embrace the telephone wires (a design triumph I call this; lunacy, said The Prince, after we called the telephone company, again).

I stood there, eye-caressing each shoot for a hint of what might be a bud and clearly recall my excitement at all of the little green nubbins, anticipating an explosion of intoxicatingly scented purple flowers dripping into the pale pink Queen Elizabeth climbing rose that artfully occupied the opposite corner and was intended as cover for a trellis over a dining patio (until it up and died).

And nothing happened. This state of nothing happening continued for several years, I told them. The wisteria just grew bigger and more unruly. I tried things: fertilizing, not fertilizing; Epsom salts; cutting back in winter, spring, summer, fall; root pruning.

Tom and Steve were excited at that last.

Root pruning! said Steve, scooting to the edge of his rocker.

But it didn’t work, I moaned. I counted three flowers this spring and they were entirely hidden by leaves.

Do you have a Chinese or Japanese wisteria? asked Tom.


Stupidly, I don’t know this. When we bought the house and I began concocting the grand scheme to replace the clothesline and plum tomato that the previous owner had planted, I thought a wisteria was a wisteria. Who knew?

I always intend to keep tags and then I don’t know where they go; this is of interest because we still have baby’s busted Game Boy, ca. 1990, and a great deal of other useless and broken dreck . . . but nothing to identify the plants. Of course, I assumed that I’d remember. Just like The Prince, who tossed the dishwasher manual, assumed that he’d remember where the damn filter or whatnot is, so it could be cleaned and the glasses wouldn’t come out looking like they were dipped in chalk and have to be hand washed . . .

In any event, I thought I’d done due diligence by planting it in exactly the same position as Pat—who does nothing in the garden but sneeze and go back inside.

Tom (though it could have been Steve) said that the Chinese variety flowers and leafs out simultaneously. The Japanese blooms and then leafs out.

Since I have to peer through a jungle of leaves to find the damn flowers, such few that I get, I suspect it’s Chinese. Which will never give me the effect I’m after, though they assure me that it’s very beautiful.

When it blooms.

That would be nice, I mutter.

Actual Flower Tip Follows!

To produce a fabulous wisteria, I’m told, the Boston Brahmin practices a little S&M on the plant, strangling the branches mid-summer, wrapping each one about four feet up with one of those plastic garbage bag ties, the ones with the jaggedy edges at one end that you pull through a hole in the other. Pull not so tightly that you cut the plant, but just enough that there are no gaps. I am assured that it will orgasm next spring in divine floriferous profusion. Or words to that effect.

This sounds interesting. However they haven’t seen our wisteria, which is more ridiculous than ever this year. The Prince has been far too busy, he’s said, to spend a Saturday morning on the garage roof as I stand in the garden and direct: that one, no that one, no— yes, no, that. And so forth until we have a giant argument and much stomping and carrying on.

We have to do this in the morning so that we can recover and go out to dinner and have a civil evening. Saturday night is date night.

I think I’ll lay in a supply of garbage bag ties and invite the boys for cocktails. Shortly.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

Next week in Green Acre, Gardener Cavanaugh will consider “stealing” her neighbor’s anti-mosquito program so she doesn’t have to bother. Stephanie is currently at work on a book about life in a small city garden.


One thought on “Green Acre #4: Wisteria Hysteria

  1. Bonnie Mitchell says:

    Amusing in your gardening ignorance! Love it

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