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Green Acre # 101: Invasion of the Flower Bomber

Wisteria galloping across a roofline. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

AH, THE WISTERIA. There’s scarcely a vine more covetable with its frills upon ruffles of purple or white pendants that mass and climb and frolic in the trees along phone lines and fences.

They loft such a heady scent, not cloying, simply pleasurable, a gentle whiff wafting on the slightest breeze speaking of spring.

Lovely they are when snipped as well, stuffed into a vase, though their droop needs to accompany something upright like the lilac (don’t get me started on lilacs) or tucked into sturdy greens, taming their draping habit.

Nevertheless, if you can think of anything to grow in its stead, do so. This is not a vine to be messed with, unless you enjoy devoting your life to the supervision of a single plant.

Caring not a whit about soil acidity or alkalinity, or much in the way of nourishment, they grow nearly wild, finding sun on their own, scrambling up and up, sometimes engulfing huge trees, grinning madly on their way. Anthropomorphism, be damned, they exhibit a near human mischievousness, popping up wherever, like it or not.

What they require is an attendant, an anal gardener permanently positioned with the clippers ready to whack at the slightest stray.

That’s what it takes to create those tamed specimens, the ones you see twirled around railings and across porch roofs, stretching just so. These are not for the amateur, or the lazy. Prune at the wrong time and pfft go the year’s blooms, but neglect the shearing and you’ll have a nightmare of sprawling canes, creeping along underground to emerge twenty feet from the mother ship, coiling up to throttle the mock orange or whatnot.

Sigh, I’m looking at that right now.

Wisteria is possibly the most ridiculously invasive vine you can plant and what’s worse, you might plant the wrong variety, something I’m horribly familiar with.

If it’s a flower bomb you want, adopt a Japanese variety, which explodes in flamboyant bloom and then turns green (with the occasional flower hither and thither throughout the summer). The Chinese wisteria, which I happen to have the misfortune of having, grows maniacally, smothering everything in its path, and gives off five flowers—in a good year. This year, as painful example, not a single blossom has emerged.

Which was not the thought, at all. The intention was to have a purple bower frolicking across the carriage house (aka garage) roof, meeting up with the climbing pink Queen Elizabeth rose on one side and nodding to the honeysuckle along the alley fence.

As it happens, the rose was gorgeous for a couple of years and then was throttled by the wisteria, and the honeysuckle —which one would think could hold its own against anything—fights a perpetually losing battle for primacy.

This has been going on for 36 summers. I suppose I should be thankful that the wisteria covers the garage (aka carriage house) roof so I’m not looking at a Princely storage dump of ladders and such—at least half the year.

Speaking of lilacs, oh right, I wasn’t speaking of them. Anyway. Treacherously tricky to grow this far south, you can still enjoy an overdose of heavenly lilac scent and blossom right now at the National Arboretum. This is not a major collection, it is said, and so is not listed on the peak bloom chart or the official map, but there is a grove of 650 or so trees, with more than 400 hybrids, unique to the grounds. That’s nothing to sniff at. Stand in their midst for a delirious sensation.

Also, note that azalea season is in full swing and the Arboretum has hillsides swamped with a rainbow of mammoth plants and their offspring.  Next up? Roses. Ah, spring.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” shares her horticultural adventures and misadventures with us every Thursday.



One thought on “Green Acre # 101: Invasion of the Flower Bomber

  1. Alas, I have never had the chance to grow wisteria, but have seen it growing marvelously for others. There is a house on Capitol Hill, DC, where the wisteria covers the entire 2-story back of the house. Nothing more beautiful in the whole world. Likewise, in West Hartford CT, I once saw an arbor over the front door of an elegant house – I think that’s where my fantasy of growing wisteria began. At Colonial Williamsburg, the gardeners there prune them back so severely at the end of winter, that they leave only a single thick stump. The key is doing this in February and doing it very severely. When a plant thinks it is dying, it sends out its most beautiful song, like in Madame Butterfly, in the form of beautiful flowers. Stephanie, I recommend having the Prince cut back all the wisteria to a single stump, and see how it will bloom.

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