ISSUE 13  |  Signs of Spring

Plant of the Week: Wisteria

March 29, 2016 6:00 AM

BY Jeanne Rostaing

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.


Above: Photograph by Bart Kiggen.

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.

Park Slope Garden with Wisteria in Bloom by Kim Hoyt_Gardenista

Above: Wisteria in bloom in a Brooklyn garden by designer Kim Hoyt, a member of the Remodelista Architects and Designers Directory. For more of this garden, see The Garden Designer Is In: Kim Hoyt in Brooklyn.

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.


Above: Wisteria trained on a stoop’s railing in Brooklyn. For more, see 9 Ways to Create Curb Appeal with a Flowering Vine. Photograph by Nicole Franzen 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.

BBG Rose Garden wisteria

Above: Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing.

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.

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


Above: Photograph by Michelle Slatalla.

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.


Above:Photograph by Bart Kiggen.

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.


Above: Photograph by Sasha Duerr.

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. See a simple technique for using wisteria to dye fabric at DIY: Make a Natural Dye from Wisteria.


Above: Photograph by Sasha Duerr.

For more about our favorite flowering vines, see: