A Gardening Journal

Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Wingnut Cascade

Wingnut puts on a show year-round: stripe-barked stems in winter, spikes of white flowers in summer and, summer into winter, these clusters of papery-winged seeds—the "nuts," if you will.

 

Trypterigium regelii 111417 another top of cascade shot 640

 

One quirk among many with this plant is that, while the spikes of white flowers are upright, even vertical, by the time the winged seeds that follow have matured, the spikes will have plunged downward. Ah, for a stop-action camera to capture this flowers-to-seeds arc of fruitfulness. The performance of the arc is a twofer, in that it's both spatial and germinal: the spikes are still vertical while the flowers mature to fresh rosy-red seeds, but then tilt downward as those seeds dry in place.

 

As in the picture below, some of the spikes are so lengthy, and at the tips of stems that are themselves swinging in free space, that they are once again fully vertical. But now the spikes are pointing in the opposite direction—straight down—from when they bore fluffy white flowers, and had pointed to the sky.

 

Trypterigium regelii pendulous clusters 111417 640

 

These dried-in-place seed clusters remain on the vine—and showy—for months. By early July, the white flowers have already progressed to the three-winged seed structures that give Tripterygium regelii its name: pterygium is latin for little wing, and is derived from the greek for little wing, pterugion. A full-sized wing would be a pterux. So there!

 

So now, the challenging genus name, Tripterygium, can be more knowledgeably parsed as tri-pterygium: a structure with three little wings.

 

Tripterygium regelii 111817 640

 

The "p" in pterygium is silent, while the "i" in tri is long, so the genus can be well-pronounced as "try-ter-IDJ-ee-um."  And here I've been saying "trip-ter-IDJ-ee-um" lo these many years. Well, well.

 

The species name, regelii, honors Eduard August von Regel, a 19th-Century German botanist who, especially when at the peak of his career as the head of the Russian Imperial Botanical Garden of St. Petersburg, wrote about, as well as named, thousands of then-new-to-Western horticulture plants.

 

Regel's wingnut certainly is quirky and crazy. Wingnutty, even, what with the multi-month show of three-winged seeds, the quirky etymology and pronunciation of the species' latin name, and the reality that the genus name refers only to the seeds, not the lovely flowers that precede them. The strongest connection throughout is those seeds. Could Tripterygium regelii be handled so that their display would be front and center?

 

Perhaps stems of wingnut grow long enough to reach across the beams of a pergola. The seed clusters would be striking as they streamed downward between and beneath the crossbeams.

 

True, spanning a pergola would mean that the stems would need to have lengthened to at least fifteen feet, up and over, as measured from the ground. My wingnut is now vigorously colonizing an espalier frame that is nearly ten feet tall. Judging by today's shots of the springing-out-into-space stems from the very top, the vine would likely climb higher and wider if it had the opportunity. So I don't doubt that Tripterygium could become big enough to canopy a pergola. 

 

But when the spikes were bearing the flowers, wouldn't most of them be held upright and out of view atop the canopy? It seems even better showmanship, then, to grow wingnut as a vertical panel, not a pergola canopy. The seed clusters would still be front and center, but so would the flowers.

 

Because flowering and "wingnutting" both happen at the tips of that season's new growth, permanent scaffold stems could be allowed to twine far and wide up through almost any sturdy vertical support. So the plant doesn't expand farther and farther outward into a haystack tangle, new growth from those permanent stems would be cut back to stubs annually, at any time between the frosts of fall and the new leaves of spring.

 

This radical cut-back might be because you're harvesting the seed clusters for bouquets and wreaths. Or you might be after the leafless first-year stems themselves. They have bizarre, swirling, cinnamon-and-white markings that would make them perfect for dried arrangements. Whatever the motivation, the cut-back ensures that plenty of fruitful new stems will merge in spring, even as overall growth remains stylishly in check.

 

Such pruning is always easier when the subject is vertical, not horizontal. Yes, it's true that I grow wisteria on pergolas, but that's because its spikes of flowers and the seed pods that follow both dangle seductively; I also grow laburnums on a pergola—but mainly so their pendulous flower clusters can mix with those of the partner wisteria. For wisterias and friends, then, the hassle of pruning while atop high ladders is well worth it.

 

If you don't mind that many of your wingnut's flower clusters would be up out of view, grow it on a pergola. You'll still be able to enjoy the dangling clusters of seeds while remaining at ground level. To enjoy both the flowers and the seeds, though, grow wingnut against a wall or up a frame. The new stems that bear the flowers at their tips will still be short enough by flowering time to hold the flower clusters vertically. As both those stems and the flower spikes complete their seasonal cycle of growth, the stems will have projected a bit farther out into space, giving the now-pendulous seed clusters plenty of room to dangle and sway.

 

When so trained as a vertical panel, the brief focus on the wingnut's flowers will "mature" to the season-long focus on its seeds, with the colorful bare stems a sophisticated winter coda. This seems like the performance Tripterygium was born to play. This winter, I'll perform the Prelude: selecting the scaffolding stems and securing them to the espalier frame.

 

Stay tuned for Act One: the young stems in bloom.

 

 

 

Here's how showy young stems of Tripterygium are in the winter.

 

Here's how intriguing the mature papery "wingnuts" of Tripterygium are.

 

Here's how to grow Tripterygium, and to see pictures of this plant's beautiful flowers, showy foliage, colorful young wingnuts, and colorful—but with quite a different color!—young stems in Summer.

 

 
 
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