A Gardening Journal

Long-chain Wisteria

wisteria-floribunda-macrobotrys-finger-6

Nothing trumps a wisteria blooming at full horsepower.  Actually, nothing trumps a wisteria in bloom even if it only has two cylinders firing, and there are only a few of the thick and heavily-pendant racemes of flowers.  No matter if your wisteria's in bloom a little or a lot, it's the star of your garden.  Especially this cultivar, Wisteria floribunda 'Macrobotrys'.  It has the longest flower chains of all, to four feet—I mean, to four FEET!  They are that exciting. 

 

The vine is unique among hardy plants for its voluptuous floral display.  Thousands of blossoms on absolutely straight-to-the-ground racemes, looking at once casual, dramatic, uniformly and even obsessively "descendent," and yet artistically free and asymmetrical. 

 

A wisteria on a pergola that's not too high will be festooned with curtains of head-brushing, face-framing flowers.  It's your own tacky geisha-girl moment, and you'll love it.  I do.

 

wisteria-floribunda-macrobotrys-trunk-640

 

I have a pair of 'Macrobotrys', and they are just now growing into their adult size and form—atop a ruthlessly practical and strong (and economical) pergola of galvanized pipe. 

 

It's only wise to plant "named" wisterias, i.e., those with a specific cultivar name and the official label to prove it.  (Seed-grown plants are notorious for blooming only after you've given up and sold your house.)  And so the plant you plant will often be quite small, regardless that your pergola will need to be its full-size form right from the start.  Not to worry. The vines grow with shocking speed.  Ten years ago, this vine was a ten-inch twig in a little pot.  In a few more years its scrawny trunk will be a mighty Arnold-like limb, albeit one that's held harmlessly in place by being tied to the pipe by just a piece of string.

 

 

Scroll down for a look at the muscular branches and flower-bud-bearing spurs of long-chain wisteria in Winter. 

 

Every garden needs a well-groomed and creatively-trained wisteria or two—or three or four. Here's how to grow them:

 

Latin Name

Wisteria floribunda 'Macrobotrys'

Common Name

Long-chain Wisteria

Family

Fabaceae, the pea family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous twining woody vine.

Hardiness

Zones 5 - 9

Habit

A potentially massive, even zip-code-sized vine, often suckering from the roots as well as rooting where low tendrils touch or "cruise along" the ground.  An almost unparalleled ability to form an all-enveloping colony.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

Completely dependent on how it's trained.  Pruned individuals can be kept at almost any size for years and decades; unpruned individuals can climb even very large shade trees, and even a whole grove of them.

Texture

In leaf, luxuriant and light green.  In flower, a breathtaking combination of pendant airy chains of colorful blossoms that hang from woody branches that can be heavy and pythonesque in thickness, and with structure-crushing torque.  In Winter, the leafless (and flower-free) limbs and trunks can be as dramatic, powerful, and graceful as the branching of any Japanese maple.

Grown for

the profuse display of pendant chains of colorful flowers, unique in hardy vines.  The flower chains of 'Macrobotrys' are exceptionally long—potentially to four feet!  Flower chains of even "regular" wisteria can still be between a foot or two feet long.

 

the velvety, woody seed pods, which, alas, are only sporadically produced.  These are a show in their own right, and can last from late Summer into Winter.

 

the dramatic heavy limbs and trunks of older individuals.

 

the sculptural combination of the curving and powerful limbs with the simple and (we hope) supremely-strong and durable support structure upon which the young vines are trained. 

 

the dappled shade that pergola-trained individuals can provide.  The vine's mature dimensions can be as large as any pergola you could ever afford to build.

 

the appeal of the training itself.  A diligently-trained specimen is a triumphant and long-term partnership of plant and gardener.  Wisteria is wonderfully flexible, literally and conceptually, when it comes to training.  A free-standing "tree" wisteria?  Wisteria up a column?  Wisteria canopying a pergola?  Wisteria espaliered across a masonry wall as long and high as you have?  Wisteria trained along a railing atop a mature hedge, as a horticultural crown-molding?  If you can build the structure, and can reach the wisteria to keep it trained to it year by year by year, your inspiration is your wisteria's command.

Flowering season

Mid Spring: Late May in Rhode Island.

Culture

Full sun but only average soil and water.  Rich soils and plenty of water tend to promote loads of vegetative growth instead of the incredible flowers.

How to handle it

All wisterias are masochists in quests of their partner sadists: You, their controlling gardener.  A wisteria that is allowed to grow free-range is an assault on the environment, sending tendrils into house attics, crushing porch columns, shading out even shade trees, and sending out straight-arrow non-twining exploratory tendrils twenty feet and more across the surface of the ground in search of their next victim.  A wisteria that has found its gardener-master, though, is an awesome and fully-controlled creature, supported on structures without crushing them, growing only where needed, and blooming with generosity and abandon.

 

Plant wisteria only after you've solved the question of what structure will support it.  Only the simplest and strongest structures are appropriate: mature vines are massive and heavy.  Don't let young tendrils twine around the structure, which would only give them something to crush as their trunks thicken more and more and more.  Truly, nothing short of structural steel members—think I-beams—would be likely to laugh off the decades-long embrace of ever-thickening wisteria trunks.  Instead, tie your wisteria's youngest shoots to the structure with twine until they've grown up and out as far as you need them to go.  In a year or two, they'll have thickened into limbs, which you can keep tied to the structure with only the occasional loop of twine.  Go over the entire plant, usually in July or August when it's in heavy vegetative growth, to retie all the limbs, repositioning any that could better help realize the shape or extent of growth that you envision, remove any that are now redundant, and in general ensure that everything you want is tied-in and nothing is being strangled by one of last year's ties.

 

At any time of the year, with ruthless glee (which the wisteria will enjoy, too), clip off further long tendrils—memorably named "whips"—whenever and wherever you find them.  This helps motivate the wisteria to produce short, knobby, multi-claw-like little stems called "spurs," which are what produce the flowers.  In short, when your wisteria is the size you want, do everything you can to whip the whips and spur the spurs.  If you calendar permits, "de-whip" your wisteria twice a season, in mid-July and then again in late September.

 

Never hesitate to saw off even thick limbs if you realize that they are no longer serving your current geometric or spatial goals for your wisteria.  The vine is inevitably producing other potential limbs—which are all nothing more than those annoying whips when they're infants—so you'll have something else to train even more closely to your goals in no time. 

 

You never need fertilize or baby your wisteria.  It doesn't want you to be nice—and will let you know that by misbehaving via rampant production of whips, sprouts from the roots, and ground-level "explorer" tendrils.  Wisteria's goal, instead, is to become a team player, with you as a captain, the boss, the drill sargeant.  It craves obedience and firm direction, and shows how happy it is when it gets them by blooming with heart-stopping enthusiasm.

 

Established wisterias are also remarkably drought-tolerant, and can if necessary get through a rain-less and water-restricted summer in Los Angeles without irrigation.

 

Never plant a seed-grown plant, or one whose provenance is in question.  Plant only named cultivars from serious nurseries.  Seedling or "garden-mutt" plants are famous for avoiding flowering for decades.

Downsides

If Japanese beetles are intense, they will chew the foliage, not that the wisteria itself cares.  If you abdicate your role as wisteria-master, your wisteria may well express its disappointment by crushing some of your house's shutters, or ripping down that fancy wood cresting on your porch.

Variants

Many.  There are other wisteria species, Japanese as well as American.  The American species and their cultivars have small flower clusters—very showy regardless of their comparative minuteness—and are much less difficult to control; they are also much more precocious when it comes to blooming.  But if your heart beats loudest for a staggeringly gorgeous classic wisteria display, you need to grow the Chinese cultivars, which have the long chains of flowers in white, pink, lavender, blue, or purple.  Double-flowered forms are out there too. 

 

If yellow wisteria-like flowers are what you want, grow laburnum trees.  Alas, there are no hardy vines (or trees either) with wisteria-like chains of red or orange flowers.

Availability

On-line and at destination nurseries.

Propagation

Cuttings or layering.

Native habitat

China

 
 
FacebookTwitterRSS Feed

Stay in touch!

 

Sign up for twice-monthly eNews, plus notification of new posts:

 

* indicates required