July 5, 2020

Wound Up with Wisteria

The green wisteria leaves get their only splash of color from a clematis.

Janine Pineo Photo | The green wisteria leaves get their only splash of color from a clematis.

• By Janine Pineo •

Pangs of envy can start a lot of twisted things.

Twinges hit me one winter a few years back when I saw a climbing plant in a catalog and desired it for my own.

My solution was to buy a steel arbor — some assembly required (try several hours of assembling in a mosquito-infested back yard) — and then bring on the wisteria.

I knew little about this plant, except that its vines could bring down a house or any other flimsy or wooden structure, hence the steel arbor.

In its first year, the wisteria was pathetic, growing rapidly but looking spindly as its puny vines twisted up the arbor.

The next spring, I couldn’t tell if it was dead or alive, so I succumbed to my more recent twinge, one that started during a garden tour Down East when I spotted a luxurious plant climbing merrily up the side of a house. And I wanted it (plant, not house, although …).

I scoured local greenhouses until I found a honeysuckle, and in it went on the west side of the arbor. It looked puny, too.

Then one day in late spring, the wisteria exploded into life with leaves and new vines popping out all over. So much for thinking it was dead.

The honeysuckle answered the challenge, and today I have dueling vines that twist, cling and climb, attaching themselves to anything in their paths.

Honeysuckle, or Lonicera, is less aggressive than wisteria in its twining, which expands its use around the yard and near or on the home. Long a symbol of captive love because of the indentations its vines leave, honeysuckle evokes sweet images that even Shakespeare embraced (“I will wind thee in my arms./So doth the woodbine, the sweet honeysuckle,/Gently entwist.”)

If its centuries-old charm isn’t enough to entice, then perhaps the delicate clusters of blossoms with their honey-sweet fragrance will.

The tubular flowers come in a variety of colors from white to pink to red to yellow, and in combinations of shades. My honeysuckle, which flowers heavily in late June and July and then off and on until fall, has red-pink buds that open to a creamy yellow inside and a softer red-pink outside.

The flowers, which are favorites of my resident hummingbirds, produce colorful berries that other birds devour.

Honeysuckle is an adaptable plant that seldom has insect troubles. Most varieties like moist, loamy soils, but L. fragrantissima will tolerate clay soil.

Other than cutting off dead growth, little pruning is recommended until the vines get unruly. Honeysuckle can be shaped after flowering by trimming older stems back to young lateral stems closer to the ground, which encourages the new vines.

If you’re looking for the complete opposite of honeysuckle, then try wisteria. This woody vine of the pea family has a mind of its own, and it shows.

Wisteria’s elegant beauty has long attracted me with its grapelike clusters of flowers that are either blue or white. But underneath that beauty are vines that seem to be made of iron.

I’ve yanked at wisteria vines that have wrapped around the arbor and done little but shake the arbor nearly off its foundation. And then there are the vines that have shot across the ground and rooted so firmly I can’t budge them. So it came as no surprise when I read that wisteria has been known to rip gutters off houses, topple wooden arbors and fences, and choke nearby trees to death.

Wisteria needs its own space just to protect the rest of your property.

The more common varieties are Japanese types, which generally produce fragrant flowers, and Chinese ones, which have little fragrance but their blossoms more than make up for it. There’s a neat trick to tell the two apart: Chinese varieties twine from left to right, while Japanese ones twine right to left, and no one seems to know why.

Once I knew that, I had to go check mine out. Yup, it’s Chinese.

I might have figured out its origins from the flowers, except my wisteria hasn’t blossomed yet (it’s been so long, I can’t even remember what color I planted). I searched for reasons, read how I should prune, prune, prune, and then pruned, pruned, pruned until I figured I’d killed any flowers that ever might consider appearing during my lifetime.

Then I read that it often takes 10 years before wisteria blossoms. I still have to prune the “ambitious” shoots, and I plan to take a spade and cut a 2-foot-diameter circle around the root area of the main vine. We’ll see if this works.

Another factor may be the soil. If it’s rich, the wisteria will produce lots of foliage, not flowers. And the plant likes clay soil, not sandy.

One other note struck fear in me: Wisteria vines can grow 100 feet long. I hope mine doesn’t have designs on my garden shed.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in July 1997.

2012 update: The wisteria continues to be the bane of my existence. Every year I prune and prune, mostly just to keep it from taking over the entire northwest corner of the yard and declaring its sovereignty. I daresay unless I figure out a way to kill it, I will be doing this until I die.