Wisteria – Wild or Wonderful?

If I had to name the plant I am most often asked to include in a garden design by a potential client, it would have to be wisteria (Wisteria floribunda, or Japanese wisteria). Sometimes, they don’t even know its name, but describe it in longing terms as “that wonderful plant that has long purple-y flowers that hang down.” I’m sure what they envision is something like this.

Wisteria floribunda, wisteria blooms, Brookside Gardens

Wisteria floribunda in bloom, draped over a lengthy wooden arbor at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton MD

Or this.

Wisteria floribunda, wisteria blooms

Wisteria trained on an ornamental iron fence in northwest Washington DC.

Now don’t get me wrong – I think this is an extraordinarily beautiful plant in bloom. But I also believe that it only belongs in a garden IF (and this is a big “if”) the garden owner is prepared to support it properly, be prepared for a serious amount of maintenance work to keep it in check, and is OK with the fact that is potentially invasive – I saw it in masses when I visited Charleston in the spring in 2009, half-smothering live oaks, and even around here I see it weaving its way up tall trees on the edges of roadways.

Wisteria was introduced to the United States in 1830.  It prefers full sun but established stands of it will live and even flower in partial shade. Here in DC, the most well-known stand of it in a public garden is probably at Dumbarton Oaks, where you can see it throughout the garden, although always carefully sited on structures that can support its weight.

Wisteria floribunda, Dumbarton Oaks, Fountain Terrace

Wisteria supported by an arbor at Dumbarton Oaks' Arbor Terrace (with the Fountain Terrace in the foreground).

Dumbarton Oaks, Wisteria floribunda, Pebble Terrace

More blooming wisteria in the Pebble Terrace at Dumbarton Oaks.

So, take a close look at this photo from the Orangerie at Dumbarton, one of the first buildings you see on entering the grounds there.

Wisteria floribunda, Dumbarton Oaks, L'Orangerie

The trunks of these wisteria vines are attached to the brick front of the Orangerie with wires and strong rubber ring supports.

Here’s the size the trunks can become over time. No wonder the gardeners here prune the wisteria three or four times during the growing season.

Wisteria floribunda, Dumbarton oaks

Wisteria trunks at Dumbarton.

In the wild, wisteria trunks like this can attach to and ultimately strangle other trees. And if I find it wild in a garden I’m designing, I confess that I will do everything in my power to eliminate it (with the owner’s permission, of course). Still, its allure is strong enough that I have one client with a very shady garden who installed a wooden arbor just to support a volunteer, and this year (perhaps our mild winter helped), it has bloomed unusually well.

Wisteria floribunda

Wisteria blooming on an arbor in a small suburban garden in a shady back yard.

I have warned her that ultimately it may become too large and heavy for this support. But for now, she is happy. And this success inspired me to write this post. (For one last look at wisteria truly “gone wild,” although in a controlled environment, click here to see wisteria “tunnels” in Japan.)

What do you think? Do you love or hate this vine?

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18 Comments on “Wisteria – Wild or Wonderful?”

  1. I totally agree with you regarding the caveats. I prune mine once or twice a year, and am happy to read that you can do it even more often if necessary. My wisteria is slowly but surely wrenching the outside handrail from the wall and I know I’ll have to do something very drastic with it quite soon. I’m linking to a picture I took in 2006, that year the entire tree blossomed the same week, some years it’s more gradual. Some of the flowers were over a foot long. And the fragrance…
    Thank you for this beautiful topic.
    Wisteria (2006)

  2. I wouldn’t say I hate Wisteria, but as it’s an invasive plant I probably wouldn’t have this in my garden. I do love the colour though; it’s very rich, which I suppose is one of its attractions to people wanting it in their garden designs.

    • Melissa Says:

      Yes, I think it’s a combination of the color and the shape of the flower panicles that entice so many people. It is even planted at the White House on a railing facing the back garden areas.

  3. willisjww Says:

    Good luck on eliminating wisteria. We planted one by the corner of the house when we moved in. Two years later decided it would be better by the deck. Three years later decided it was too hard to control and moved it to the front split rail fence. Subsequently tried to cut it down on the split rail. Now we have wisteria that comes up every year in all three places. It has run the full length of the split rail and sends it’s runners in every direction. I don’t let it flower anymore and chop out the ones by the house as soon as I see them. I generally think it’s a wonderful plant viewed on someone else’s house but those Japanese wisteria tunnels are enticing…

    • Melissa Says:

      Amen to the “viewed on someone else’s house.” I often see seedling volunteers in client gardens even when there’s no evidence of a large planting of it nearby. Must be bird transport. Have you tried painting Roundup on the leaves?

      • willisjww Says:

        With regard to roundup, I guess I’m just not a roundup kind of guy. I would rather live with the yearly cutting back…
        Though I can understand how people go to roundup in some situations…

  4. Great post on the dangers and joys of this romantic plant. Now after some hard lessons learned, I only plant it in client’s gardens if they put in a structure that has iron bars.

    • Melissa Says:

      I think that would work if the bars are pretty substantial. But ordinary railings would probably eventually fail (see Nadine’s post above).

  5. Victoria Says:

    Most people don’t know we have native wisterias, which are are not as aggressive or invasive as their Asian cousins. My favorite is Wisteria ‘Amethyst Falls’ – a Georgia Gold Medal plant winner, and an improved cultivar of one of our native wisterias. I have one growing up my deck posts to my second-story deck where it spills over beautifully. ‘Amethyst Falls’ usually blooms the second year after planting, is wonderfully fragrant and is quite nicely restrained…a very “polite” vine 🙂 I took this picture last week: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=390393664316351&set=a.372085682813816.85619.372025429486508&type=3&theater
    Thumbs up for our natives!

  6. I will not sell Japanese or Chinese wisteria at an annual plant sale at Morven, a historic house in Princeton NJ that has a gorgeous Chinese wisteria draped over the porch, even though I get multiple requests for it. It requires a lifetime commitment to thrice yearly pruning — on a ladder. Plus the lateral ground shoots can help it escape to unsuspecting neighbor properties. In my opinion, it belongs on properties that have long-term (that is, longer than one owner’s lifetime) procedures in place for care.

    • Melissa Says:

      Pam, thank you for your input. The more I read the numerous comments this post has provoked (both here and through some LinkedIn groups) the more I realize my cautions to clients about this plant are completely justified – and may need to be increased.

  7. Although the plant is a monster and invasive, I think it has a place in the garden. The best application I have seen for it is in the Sara P Duke Garden in Durham, NC. There it covers a massive pagoda and is really the garden’s centerpiece.

  8. Maggie Cole Says:

    Wisteria is a beautiful invasive plant. JC Raulston Arboretum (ncsu) has done a extraordinary job growing into minature trees on poles in white and purple. So fragrant- be great to bottle the fragrance!

  9. The Ferris Family Says:

    Attending a Garden Show, I saw Wysteria Starters for sale and had to laugh – the merchant was charging $20 a starter! I should have brought a few of my own, sold them, and had a nice expensive lunch after the show! The Wysteria in our yard thrives in Sun, Shade, Drought, it just doesn’t matter – and I’m not really sure why it is so strong? We have two vines near a carport – one at the front and the other at the back. The two vines have grown towards each other and interwoven. I would say the vine trunks are at least 6 inches thick. I know the vines are over 60 years old. Once we were covering the cement inside the carport with a concrete protectant and in the middle of the project realized that some of the drainage in the process was going right to the base of each vine. I thought the Wysteria would die – but instead – it seemed to thrive all the more, like I had put fertilizer on it! This will also be hard to believe, but on years we have paid close attention to the plants, pruning them back about twice a week, we have had three bloomings in one season. It is very hot and humid here in Northern, Va during the summer months & maybe that is another reason why the plants do so well. We have decided to try and “train” the vines to grow into a very sturdy Trellis type Cover made to hold the weight and cover an area not shaded by the carport as a cover for a second car parking space. By this time next year, the way the vines grow, I wouldn’t be suprised if the Trellis is fully developed & the car cover is complete.

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