Wisteria must be one of the most recognised and loved climbers – even non-gardeners know it – and yet, strangely, it has no common name, no loving nickname. For me, wisteria is oh so romantic with its fabulous drooping racemes of lilac flowers, swaying and dancing in the breeze.
We tend not to plant it much here perhaps thinking it won’t enjoy the heat or will take years to settle into flowering. That’s not true here; you can often buy small plants in full flower and they’ll settle down immediately - perhaps the baking heat of summer provoking this precocious flowering. Once it’s found its feet, it will romp away rapidly along an old stone wall or draping its elegant self over supports. It does make a perfect pergola plant - the flowers can be viewed to perfection cascading down like bunches of pale grapes, there’s good-looking foliage through all the hot months and, being deciduous, winter sunshine can enter.
Wisteria sinensis, or Chinese wisteria, is the one we know best, a member of a family of ten species. Native to China and Korea, it was named by botanist Thomas Nuttall for Caspar Wistar (1761-1818) a professor of Anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania and it was introduced into Europe in 1816. It’s reckoned to live to around 100 years old so choose your planting spot well and future generations will thank you for it.
This vine can reach a huge 30m long and looks wonderful tumbling out of an old tree if you’ve no wall or pergola space for it. It’s also glorious as a standard/mini tree and makes good ground cover too though I always feel it’s rather a shame to make it grovel! I love the traditional lilac but there are also white, deep violet and pink hybrids. All are striking because they appear before the foliage. It’s great to watch those flower buds forming, like thick furry swelling grubs. The flowers develop in long strings, or racemes, up to 0.5m long and scented. Then the bronzy-green foliage starts to unfurl cloaking the vine in a rich fresh greeness, that sort of vibrant spring green that makes you feel good to be alive.
In the wild it grows on forest edges climbing into trees or sprawling across disturbed ground. The seeds can float on rivers for long distances, remaining viable. Its quick growth rate has made it an exotic nuisance in various parts of the world. Plant it in good rich ground; it will grow in some shade but seems to flower better in full sun and remember that it will need heavy duty supports. Birds occasionally pick at the developing flower buds, producing poor flowering. Generally fairly pest free, you may find the odd outbreak of aphids and, rarely here, honey fungus can strike.
Pruning seems to confuse many but it is a vine that is very tolerant of pruning and it can even be cut back to the ground, though flowering may then be a little delayed. If you’re growing it up into a tree, it can, largely, be left to its own devices. In a more formal setting, in early summer shorten back the long whippy shoots to about 30cm. The main pruning is in late autumn. Cut back laterals by about one third of their length and side-shoots need to be cut back to 3 buds. The main leader should be pruned to 1m longer than the laterals.
Propagation is from side shoots in early summer or by layering in springtime. Seeds can take a long time to settle into flowering and will be variable.
Although a member of the pea family, this one is definitely NOT edible – the seeds, pods, bark and resin are toxic to humans and animals causing nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea.
If you’ve never been, do make a visit to the JardinBotánico La Concepción in Malaga and see their wisteria tunnel – it’s absolutely glorious. Give them a ring – they’ll tell you when it’s looking its best.
Another stunning lilac vine that we have planted at the garden centre is the Australian wisteria, or hardenbergiaviolacea. A much deeper violet colour with a purple spot to each flower, it too bears long drooping racemes, though smaller and more delicate looking than the Chinese wisteria. The bees adore it and are busily working the flowers on any warm winter day for this vine is a winter flowerer, starting up around the end of the year and continuing until April. Our vine also seems to be a favourite of birds; we often find old nests in it during the autumn tidy up.
The simple ovoid leaves are evergreen and the tumble of flowers give a lovely eye-catching splash of colour against a white wall or it will equally scramble down a rough bank. In rich soil, it can get big; if it starts to get a little overpowering, shear it down low and you’ll be rewarded by lots of vigorous new growth and an even more spectacular flowering than usual. Propagation is from pre-soaked seed or try layering long shoots.
These two lovely vines will flower back to back, filling early spring-like days with elegance and style. Do give them a try!
Lorraine Cavanagh has lived in Spain for 25 years; a mother, grandmother and hispanófila, her passions are plants, the environment, food and drink, and travelling within Spain. A landscape gardener and writer, she’s always happy to give advice. Call and see her at ViverosFlorena, 2km from Cómpeta down the Sayalonga Road – have a free coffee and cake in their tea-rooms.
Her book Lorraine Cavanagh’s Mediterranean Garden Plantshas been nicknamed ‘the bible’. The new edition at €24.90 is now generally available throughout Spain.
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