Saturday, April 17, 2010

Wisteria or Wistaria?

A neighbor's Wistarias conquering a 35 foot holly

Wistaria or Wisteria? As I attended the University of Pennsylvania with its Wistar Institute, a modern-day think-tank I should know, but did not know until then. The plant was named Wistaria for famous Penn Scientist Caspar Wistar in honor of his many contributions to science. Somewhere along its early introduction to the public through engravings in the publication The Horticulturist, 1853-74, whose writers included pre Landscape Architect, Andrew Jackson Downing, the engraver misspelled the name Wisteria. The name took hold and today both spellings are accepted, but Wistaria was the original.

When I first planted my garden one of the first plants I put in was a Wistaria. I had picked up the seed pod while on a walk in West Philadelphia with a friend where we both were attending graduate school in Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. A long time has passed since that walk and nurturing that plant initially in a pot, secondarily in my friend’s garden and finally planting it in my own garden in a super special location with the hope that something grown from seed and tended with love for oh so many years would produce a bounty for the garden.

Corner view of the Sierra Madre Giant Wistaria

My own experience with Wistarias dates back to my days in California where the town of Sierra Madre had a plant that in growing had crushed and caused the demolition of three homes. Growing more that 24 inches in a 24 hour period and located on the slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California this community celebrated the magic of this enormous plant that covered an acre and whose fragrance would permeate the entire community with history and myth.

Underneath the Giant Wistaria

On March 14 of this year the community, again joined in celebrating this unusual specimen with attendance of more than 10,000 visitors. These days, it measures in at over 250 tons of mass with 1.5 million blossoms. It is 116 years old and was planted in 1894 by Alice Brugman after she purchased it in a 1-gallon pot for 75 cents from a Monrovia nursery. The First Wistaria Festival occurred in 1918.

Check out the site:

My own Wistaria as it stood for ten years

The reality is that I knew that some plants grown from seed often never produce the best results. The best fruits, flowers, etc are often grafted on to the parent wood and there fruiting or flowering branches produce magical effects. This is how you get those deranged creations that for the sake of satisfying our ability to gloat we have a tree that produces, pear, peaches, and plums or something like that.

Knowing full well that this plant might grow into a dud I still pursued the process of pruning it into the standard upright fountain form. You kind of create an effect as though the plant represented water flowing out of basins and you prune the bejesus out of it shaping it like a Christmas tree into multiple tiers. For those reading a translation or not knowing American slang bejesus means an extreme action.

For years, I have pruned this plant lovingly into this shape. Some years, seeing less than encouraging results I have pruned it more severely. A few years ago it actually produced a wonderful cascade of lavender flowers and since then I keep pruning with minor if no flowering results. I suspect that it is my fault for the location that I chose. Sunnier long ago, it has become rather shady and although I have seen Wistarias bloom in the shade they often are exposed to sun at some point; mine isn’t.

Preliminary lopping has revealed a window to a neighbor's woodland

So as they say it is time to fish or cut bait. Yet another wonderful idiomatic phrase that implies a time for action. I am going to remove the Wistaria. After years of care without results most professional gardeners would have taken it out long ago. I could dig it up and transplant it elsewhere into a sunny spot but my garden is full. I could give it to a budding gardener neighbor who has room, but this is a serious plant that if not properly controlled might just take a house down or invade a tree. So not even to the compost pile will it go for fear that the tendrils will root and I will have a far more serious problem. So with pain I will say goodbye to this old friend, but I have said good bye to plant and worse, people friends before. Now the challenge is what to put in its place.

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