Wisteria, Wisteria floribunda

May 2, 2017

Resurgent May, softness with energy,
Warmth after cold, reunion after loss.
It is a columbarium full of doves,
A susurration of the living leaves.

Vita Sackvile-West

Blossoms of May previously discussed include the dove tree, dogwood, crabapple, lilac, tree peony, viburnum and azalea. Sackville-West’s “softness with energy” prompts herein the addition of the exquisite, albeit notoriously vigorous, Wisteria, Wisteria floribunda. When in bloom it is one of the most beautiful flowering vines.

Wisteria is a relatively small genus of ten species of woody vines, within the FABACEAE, or legume family. The Japanese wisteria, Wisteria floribunda is renown with an enormous literature and history in Japan. This vine with their extravagant, cascading blossoms was introduced into Europe in 1830 by German-born, physician-botanist, Philipp von Siebold (1796-1866). Siebold, a surgeon with the Dutch East Indies Army, is credited with performing the first cataract operation in Japan, in addition to introducing many plants then new to Europe, which later would come to North American landscapes.

Their floral show is produced on 8 to 20-inch-long pendulous racemes, swaying or fluttering with the wind. The individual ½ to 3/4-inch-long, violet or violet-blue, slightly fragrant flowers have five petals of three different shapes. A single upper petal is referred to as the “banner”, extending laterally on either side are two “wing” petals, and at the bottom are two adjacent “keel” petals. Flowers shaped like this are common in the FABACEAE, and we also saw these with the yellowwood and redbud trees. These flowers are very attractive to bees and other insect pollinators.

After wisteria flowers are successfully fertilized, seeds for progeny mature within 4 to 6-inch, light-brown, velutinous pods, which persist on the vine into early winter. The compound leaves which begin emerging at the same time as the flowers eventually will grow to be 10 to 15-inches-long, with 13 to 19 one-inch-long leaflets. The vines climb via strongly clockwise-twining stems which are capable of attaining heights of 30-feet, or more, depending upon what it is growing on. In Japan, it is often grown on a pergola, fuji dana, made just for this purpose.

The vigorous growth of wisteria’s strong stems can indeed be too much of a good thing, and in many of our southern states this plant has ended up on invasive species lists, but it is not on the Massachusetts “do not plant” list. Here we may apropos facetiously turn to Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959) famously, or perhaps infamously, quoted in a 1953 New York Times Magazine article saying, “The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines.” Vigorous growing and flowering wisteria may have been what Wright was envisioning.

Don’t commit the mistake of missing a springtime visit to Mount Auburn as nature’s cornucopia of blossoms has begun, and will continue to unravel for weeks to come. When you are next here look for one regularly pruned and size-managed wisteria on Central Avenue, opposite our administration building.

…the saints
arrived to line before his throne singing
and a wisteria poked its lank blossoms
through a cloudbank at his feet, …

Mary Karr

to whatever bright
fluttering is next, the bright fluttering
of wisteria petals, a felicitous
phrase, fingers touching
a face…

Charlie Smith

Half drunk
On the heavy scent
Of purple, …

Linda Pastan

At day’s end the whole sky,
vast, unstinting, flooded with transparent
tint of wisteria,
over the malls, …

Denise Levertov

About the Author: Jim Gorman

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