A Gardening Journal

Wisteria Pods

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By August, this wisteria's ravishing chains of pink flowers have matured to heavy velvety pods.  Spring's merely-staggering beauty has matured to Summer and Fall's long-lasting and stylish subtlety.

 

They're woody as well as heavy—a real conk on the head if you're tall enough or they're low enough.  My pink wisteria is in training along a pipe that's ten feet above ground, though, so I'm on a step-ladder for these shots.  There's a young yew hedge directly below, which someday will be a perfect evergreen wall eight-and-a-half feet tall.  The wisteria, then, will be the wall's "coping."

 

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Meanwhile, by July the brief flourish of pink flowers in May gives way to the months of eccentric excitement, thanks to these extraordinary pods.   None of my other wisterias "come into bean" with anything like this pink wisteria's dedication and success.  And yet they all enjoy the same soil and sun, and get the same pruning.  And they're all about the same age: ten years.  

 

But only this pink-flowered wisteria is a bean-pod champ, producing pounds of them in a jostling line-up—or, rather, "hang-down"—like a vegetable marimba. 

 

The beans are, truly, so velvety and yet so solid—woody, even—that they demand some stroking.  The soft surface covers an absolutely rigid structure.

 

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Maybe I need to add a lower-level pipe so I can train another whip of this wisteria into flower and heavy "beaning" at an altitude where everyone can enjoy the pods even if they didn't happen to bring a stepladder. 

 

If this yew wall-to-be already has coping, well why not also give it a fancy waist-level strip of pod-heavy molding, too?

 

 

 

Here's how to grow a great crop of these velvety and woody beans:

 

Latin Name

Wisteria sinensis 'Rosea'

Common Name

Pink Chinese Wisteria

Family

Fabaceae, the Pea family.

What kind of plant is it?

Hardy flowering vine.

Hardiness

Zones 5 - 9.

Habit

Woody, twining, opportunitistically in every direction unless restrained.

Rate of Growth

Fast.  Really fast.

Size in ten years

Size depends on training.  Eventually a thick-trunked vine or even small tree.  With training can be held at almost any height and width; uncontrolled Chinese wisteria can cover acreage.

Texture

The pinnate foliage is attractive but not distinctive: there are many pea-family plants that deserve a home in your garden.  Because the growth is so dependent on the training—which, in turn, is so often just a matter of restraining—the texture might be dense, diffuse, weedy, or sculptural. 

Grown for

the profuse display of pendant chains of pale-pink flowers, unique in hardy vines.  The flower chains of 'Rosea' are only about a foot long—nothing exceptional for a Chinese wisteria, where lengths of two to four feet are possible.

 

the velvety, woody seed pods, which unlike in the long-chain wisteria featured in full flower in May, are heavily produced.  These are a show in their own right, and can last from July to January.

 

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

Spring: May in Rhode Island.  The podding season is from July into Winter.

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.

 

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

By cuttings or layering.  All wisteria enjoy sending out ground-level shoots that can race many yards through the taller growth of a surrounding bed before you have a clue they were even there.  They root along the way, so if you need more of a particular wisteria, let one of these "outward bound" shoots live long enough to root-in, and then, in Spring or Fall, sever it from the mother plant and transplant where you will.

Native habitat

Wisteria sinensis is native of China.

 
 
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