Taming the wisteria beast

April25


Wisteria is a love/hate plant – somehow easiest to love when you catch sight of its graceful flowers on a drive through the country, past places you rarely or never see. A glimpse of wisteria’s pale purple tresses arrayed down the front of a house is breathtaking.

But if you are the minder of the creature that is wisteria, you’ll know how hard-won that grace is. This is a vigorous, jungle-ready climber, and the slim, year-old plant I put into the ground in 2004 is now thick as a python at its base, with ambitions to cover not just the south-facing wall of our cottage, but our entire village here in eastern Scotland. Coaxing the plant to stay where I want it is like persuading a giant beast to stand against the wall and spread ’em.

Perhaps any wisteria would be like this, but my wisteria floribunda is as vigorous as I’d ever want any plant to be. I thought I was ordering wisteria sinensis – something I still haven’t forgiven the mail-order company for – as sinensis flowers before it leafs up.

This is important: it means it’s easier to see the flowers on sinensis, which resemble bunches of grapes, than on floribunda, whose flower racemes are up to a meter long and come at the same time as its leaves, obscuring the blooms. This means I end up wrenching off a handful of leaves every time I pass the plant in May. By this late stage, I’ve worked too hard on this plant all year — through the years — to let it hide its glory away.

April is probably the most exciting time, as the bare branches burst, like the plant is shaking out 500 shaggy brown tails. These lengthen into snouts, then finally into ultra-long tresses of lavender flowers with a haunting, powdery-sweet scent … providing I’ve done everything the wisteria has demanded up to this point, that is. This includes:

  • the August pruning of unwanted shoots
  • the winter-prune shortening of side shoots to a finger’s length
  • the spring application of sulfate of potash
  • early-years training of the branches sideways along taut wires
  • a decade of clipping the plant’s branches so that most of them stand out from the wall like hanging basket brackets, to let the flowers hang free when they finally appear.

But all is forgiven on those early mornings in mid-May, when the rising sun angles through the elder and rosa glauca in the east of the garden and spotlights a perfect wisteria floribunda, which by that point I’m brutally de-leafing, up to twice a day.

Cups of tea taken on the bench under the wisteria are some of my happiest times in this garden. We’ve attached a mini-pergola to the house, like an awning over the bench, to nudge the plant away from the wall and give its racemes space to hang.

Looking up through it, it’s as if the pale purple tresses of wisteria are hanging from squares of blue sky. These are the good days, when I can feel the neighbours pausing as they pass our back gate, drinking in their annual glimpse of this beautiful beast of a plant.

Balanced against the 350 days of work it takes to get there, the good days are just about worth it.

What plant do you labour with? Is it worth it for you?

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