Wisteria: A Dangerous Beauty (Are You Tempted?) by

Issue 70 · Spring Fling · April 29, 2013

Wisteria: A Dangerous Beauty (Are You Tempted?)

Issue 70 · Spring Fling · April 29, 2013

The charms of wisteria are almost impossible to resist. Lounging languorously over a fence or pergola, she will beckon to you with her heady perfume. Before you know it, her nodding, pendulous blooms have hypnotized you. Soon you are rushing to the nearest garden center, determined to own her, but be warned. Wisteria has a mind of her own.

You are not the first to succumb.  Marco Polo was an early conquest.  He brought wisteria seeds out of China in the 13th century. But you would be wise to take the time to get to know this beauty before you commit to her.  Like a Jezebel she will steal your heart and then, after you are weakened and besotted with love, she will set about to dominate your garden and, if possible, your house. Take this caveat to heart: she is fully capable of attempting to murder your other plants.

Photos by Jeanne Rostaing unless otherwise noted.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden Rose Garden Wisteria in Gardenista


Her background is actually quite innocent.  Wisteria is a genus of about ten species of woody, deciduous twining vines. Eight are Asian and include Wisteria floribunda, Japanese wisteria and Wisteria senensis, Chinese wisteria.  Wisteria frutescens, the often less fragrant and floriferous American wisteria, is a native vine and often recommended as an alternative to the Asian wisterias which are on the USDA list of invasive plants.

Wisteria at Huntington Library, L.A. for Gardenista


Wisteria owes its ability to twine readily around a support to the fact that it is a member of the Fabaceae or legume family. Along with its gorgeous flowers, wisteria produces large seed pods. In the early 1800s, collectors imported wisteria seed from China and Japan to the US and Britain. However, plants grown from the seed produced disappointing flowers.  When plant collectors later brought home cuttings made from layering or grafting, the plant thrived and bloomed abundantly like its predecessors in Asia.

Wisteria at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, TX for Gardenista


If you have plenty of sun, lots of room and a very sturdy support, wisteria is not a difficult plant to grow. It is hardy to zone 5 and likes good drainage and a slightly alkaline soil.  It thrives in a spot protected from strong winds and needs plenty of water when it is in bloom. Avoid feeding with high-nitrogen fertilizer as legumes fix their own nitrogen and adding more will reduce flowering.

Wisteria frutescens Amethyst Falls is $29.95 from White Flower Farm.


BBG Cranford Rose Garden wisteria trunk for Gardenista  

Plan to enjoy your wisteria for a long time.  Plants in China have been known to live 250 years.  And here in Brooklyn, the wisterias in the Cranford Rose Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden are thought to be about 100 years old.  A glance at their massive, gnarled woody trunks would seem to prove that point.

For a glimpse of wisteria at the height of its powers, see The Original Vertical Garden: Hotel Raphael in Rome.

  Houston, TX bird sanctuary native wisteria for Gardenista

Buy yourself a heavy duty pair of pruning shears because, if you do plant wisteria, you will need to become a virtuoso  pruner. 

  felco no. 6 pruners pruning shears

Above: For heavy duty hand pruners, see 5 Favorites: Pruners. Photograph by Felco SA, via Flickr.

The dark side of this vine has to do with its amazing vigor and the ability for its tendrils to travel swiftly underground, popping up far away from the main plant, and devilishly wrapping around trees, rose bushes or virtually anything else that is in their path and standing still. 


Wisteria in Huntington Library's Chinese Garden for Gardenista

For more on wisteria’s thug-like behavior, please stay tuned.

wisteria train how not to eat a house

Above: Photograph via Environmental Concept.

Later this week we will discuss how to tame wisteria enough to keep it from eating your house.


Wisteria leaves and flowers in bowl

Above: Photograph by Sasha Duerr, Permacouture

If you are determined to plant wisteria or already own it, you may be interested to know that all those leaves and stems you prune away can be put to good use. Later this week we will show you the simple technique for using wisteria to dye fabric.

For further reading, please check out Plans for Small Gardens and What to Grow on a Brick Wall.




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