A Gardening Journal

Regel's Wingnut

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Unusual, colorful, cooperative, reliable:  This plant—Wingnut—gets a perfect score.  The papery three-winged seeds are even showier than the small, starry white flowers that precede them.  About a half-inch long, their red-pink wings are in brilliant contrast to the lime-green center, let alone the pale-green stems.

 

But Wingnut is even more generous with color:  Each season's new stems are as brightly red-pink as the wings, both the soft stems (petioles in the Latin) of the leaves themselves, and the first-year woody stems of the plant. 

 

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Young woody growth is normally described as "green," but Wingnut doesn't worry about being normal.  Except for its large green leaves and much-branched flower stems, Wingnut eschews green entirely.  Fine with me: I like a plant that marches to its own drummer. 

 

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Older stems settle down to "barky brown," so you'll want to inspire Wingnut to grow the maximum amount of vivid new stems.  Happy to help!

 

 

Here's how to grow this eccentrically vivid plant:

 

Latin Name

Tripterygium regelii

Common Name

Regel's Wingnut

Family

Celastraceae, the Bittersweet family.

What kind of plant is it?

Scrambling and twining deciduous shrub.

Hardiness

Zones 5 - 9

Habit

A scrambling shrub that, given opportunity, can also twine as a vine.

Rate of Growth

After established, fast.

Size in ten years

Ten to fifteen feet tall; extent depends on the size of whatever it's climbing through.

Texture

Large leaves, rhododendronish in scale, make a unique and somewhat tropical show for a hardy vine; the fluffy flower clusters (and the wingnuts that follow) are contrastingly delicate.

Grown for

the foliage: red-veined and light-green, and as large as the leaves of rhododendrons.

 

the leaf-stems (petioles) and first-year branches, which are a brilliant reddish-pink, in enormous contrast with the leaves. The first-year stems adopt striking shades and patterns of cinnamon in the Winter.

 

the broad but vertical spikes of small, starry, white flowers, creating a fluffy frilliness above the leaves.

 

the namesake three-winged seeds that develop from only a few of the flowers; these are the same red-pink as the stems.

 

the unusual scrambling/vining habit.

Flowering season

Early Summer in Rhode Island:  May into June.  The "nutting" season starts July through September, and the display is effective into January.

Culture

Wingnut is nothing if not accomodating.  Almost any soil as long as there's reasonable water in Summer and reasonable drainage in the Winter.  Growth is faster in full sun, but acceptable in part shade.

How to handle it

Wingnut's eccentric but substantial talents need your partnership for good display:  Plant wingnut with a thought, right from the start, how you'll be handling the sprawling/vining growth.  This is not the plant to grow free-range, which would produce a tangled outward-bound haystack no more appealing than that of its bittersweet relatives.     

 

Evergreen coniferous shrubs or even trees are a lively host, providing the maximum contrast with the wingnut's large leaves.  Plant the wingnut outside the evergreen's foliage canopy so it gets sun when young and also doesn't have to compete with the host for water.  (It's typically very dry as well as very shady anywhere under a conifer's canopy.)  Tie a few young stems to a stake to get them more interested in climbing as well as twining.  Stems that are making progress upward—to greater sun, in other words—will grow faster than stems that are scrambling lower to the ground.

 

Because it's the new stems of each season that are the startling red-pink, train to maximize their number by guiding the main stems sideways through or around the surface of the evergreen's canopy, not straight up.  In general, stems that are on a slant, or even horizontal, are more productive of side shoots and flowers.

 

Wingnut would also be an unusual but inspired choice to espalier, giving you even easier access to train the stems as well as view the showy flowers, stems, and nuts.  In this situation, you might want to prune off the first-year stems each Fall  This keeps the shrub from growing ever-outward.  (That projecting growth is called, memorably, "breastwood.")  The papery wingnuts dry well, so the clusters you cut in the Fall would be great for a Winter arrangement.  You could also wait until early Spring to prune, before new growth starts.  Cut the flowering stems back to their lowest couple of leaves, so they'll branch out even more when growth resumes. 

 

I haven't noticed self-seeding on any Wingnuts I've established over the years.

Downsides

The Fall foliage color isn't exciting, but that's a minor shortcoming, indeed.

Variants

The seeds of T. wilfordii are even more colorful.  Wow, wouldn't it be incredible if there were a variegated wingnut?  A purple-leaved wingnut?  If more of us grow Wingnuts, it's more likely that variants will be discovered.

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

By layering, cuttings, or seeds.

Native habitat

Japan, Korea, Manchuria

 
 
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