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Plant of the Week: Wisteria

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Latin: Wisteria sinensis

Picture closeup of wisteria vine  showing purple cascading flower cluster.

I do not have a wisteria planted in my garden. This is not because I don’t admire the beauty of this purple-flowered vine, but because it frightens me.

Knowing my slovenly ways, I fear that were I to plant one, in short order it would take over my house, then yard and then neighborhood. As a public service, I have refrained from the temptation.

Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) is a fast growing, woody vine belonging to the legume family that became an instant hit when introduced into England in 1816. It's a rampant grower, capable of engulfing trees, power poles and anything that gets in its path It rewards us each spring with the drooping, foot-long trusses of purple pea-flowers. It climbs by twining its vines in a clockwise fashion around all it encounters, even poles 6-inches in diameter.

Because of a long history of xenophobia amongst Chinese rulers, only two early trading ports were allowed in China before the Opium Wars of 1842; Canton (now officially Guangzhou, but also spelled Kuang-chou, just to keep you on your toes) and Macao. Chinese city names are difficult to follow because most of the original trading was in South China where "Cantonese," the language of Canton was spoken.

After the Communists won control of China in the 1940s, Mandarin became the official language of all of China and city names across the country were changed to conform to the unified language. Westerners further garbled the process by phonetically spelling place names, further confusing the issue.

Guangzhou was used as a manufacturing and trading center by the English East Indies Company since 1684. After the second trade mission to Beijing in 1812, English trade with China picked up and things were hopping in Guangzhou. This region of southeastern China remains the main area of manufacture for the Chinese goods sold in Wal-Mart stores today.

John Reeves arrived from England in 1812, mostly working in Guangzhou which is 90 miles inland from the more widely known port city of Hong Kong, which only became important as a trade center after the Opium Wars. He worked as a tea inspector for the English East Indies Company.

Reeves was a great gardener and directly or indirectly involved in getting many of the familiar Chinese plants back to England during the twenty plus years he lived in China. In Guangzhou, the English traders were only allowed to work through eleven "hong" (Chinese merchants), one of whom took the anglicized name of Consequa. It was in his garden that Reeves first saw wisteria in bloom.

Consequa was, according to Reeves’ reports, an affable individual who agreed to propagate and sell plants of the vine he had acquired from further north in mainland China. Apparently Consequa’s fate was not a kind one, dying destitute as a result of deals with English and American merchants who swindled him by taking delivery of products but never paying for them.

Wisteria, called Ziteng (Purple Vine) in Chinese, has been grown since the fifth century in Chinese gardens and is still commonly used. It was first written of in 1406 by the Imperial prince Zhu Xiao in his Jiuhuang Bencao - which translates roughly as the "save-from-famine herbal." Zhu, a kind of Euell Gibbons of his day, experimented with more than 500 garden plants and roadside weeds as he prepared his herbal. Wisteria flowers are steamed and then fried or used to make "wisteria cakes".

Growing wisteria is not a problem in the garden, but controlling it is. The best usage seems to be to grow it on a strong, free-standing trellis that is some distance from other plants upon which it might scamper. It can also be grown on chain-link fences or as a free-standing "tree," with the vine initially allowed to climb on a metal post.

Most of our problems with wisteria come from our timidity - our unwillingness to prune the vine. Because it produces such a tangle of twining vines, the only sensible time to prune it is in the winter when you can more or less see what you are doing. Don’t let it grow for a number of years and then try to prune. Instead, prune it some every year and try to keep ahead of its rambunctious nature. Wintertime pruning reduces the number of blooms, but it flowers at almost every node, so they always have plenty of blooms.

Plants grown from seed go through five to seven years of juvenility before they flower. Cutting-grown vines usually flower in a two or three years after planting, provided you don’t let them grow unrestrained. Pruning and keeping the plant growth somewhat in check increases flowering.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - April 23, 2004


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.