Enchanting Wisteria

Enjoy this luxuriant beauty while it lasts.
Rebecca Bull Reed

Southerners have a bittersweet love affair with this ambitious vine. Eleven months out of the year, we curse its aggressive behavior, wish it ill, and turn up our noses at those who plant it. However, in spring, when wisteria?s luscious flowers open, we have a change of heart. Is it so bad to breathe in its delicate perfume, to delight in sitting beneath a rain of petals? Not at all.

Part of what makes a great garden is balancing the groomed and well behaved with that which seems to have a mind of its own. It's the wild that adds charm, romance, mystery, and--of course--work. Remember, though, this vine is worth the effort. It's often the precocious climber that brings out the oohs, aahs, and cameras.

As lovely as it is, wisteria doesn't have to be a beast. Wise selection and placement can have you singing this plant's praises.

  • Make good choices. American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) is less aggressive than its Chinese and Japanese cousins. Try white 'Nivea' or purple 'Amethyst Falls.' Also good is Kentucky wisteria (W. macrostachya). White 'Clara Mack' is nice in small gardens. If you can't find these at your local garden center, visit www.woodlanders.net and www.waysidegardens.com.
  • Plant smart. Cut the bottom from a large plastic tree container, dig a hole big enough for the container, place it in the hole, and then plant your wisteria directly in it. This will help control lateral root growth.
  • Provide ample support. Flimsy wooden arbors are no match for wisteria. Opt for sturdy metal frames, or train this plant atop a brick wall.
  • Practice restraint. Even with the more docile wisterias, plant no more than you're willing to care for, and chances are they won't become a problem. As with all good things, moderation is key.


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  • Get the situation under control by pruning aggressively. Cut back adventuresome shoots with a pair of loppers (or a chain saw, if needed). Eradicate unwanted plants with a herbicide such as Roundup. For best results, fill a large bucket with a Roundup solution mixed according to the label directions. Wearing gloves and protective eye gear, push as many leaves as you can into the bucket (young shoots are more flexible), and soak them for several days. The chemical will be transferred throughout the plant and carried to the roots. Within two weeks, you should notice results. Keep vegetative growth under control, and you'll keep spread under control. While this plant produces hard, wavy, felt-covered pods that contain seeds, germination occurs only under ideal situations.
  • Control the size and shape by removing long streamers. This can be done as needed three or four times during the year. To maintain a single trunk, rub off buds that develop on the trunk. If you want multiple trunks, allow several stems to develop.
  • Once your plant is trained, thin side shoots, and shorten flowering spurs each winter. Flowering spurs have fat buds on them. Shorten them so that there are only two or three buds per spur.
  • To encourage more blooms, don't fertilize. Full sun is a must for flower production. If your wisteria still hasn't bloomed, root-prune in spring. Dig vertically into the root zone with a spade. Still no flowers? Perhaps your plant was a seedling; it takes them years to bloom. For guaranteed flowers, buy grafted, budded, or cutting-grown selections.

"Enchanting Wisteria" is from the March 2008 issue of Southern Living.