Plant Spotlight – Wisteria

Wisteria has been around a long time, with 7 million year old fossils of Wisteria sinensis, or Chinese wisteria, found in China. Plants live an average of 50 years but can survive much longer. Of the Japanese variety, Wisteria floribunda, a 150 year old living specimen can be found in the Ashikaga Flower Park in Tochigi, Japan. With such longevity the plant is said to symbolise long life and immortality.

Originally known in China as ’’Zi Ten’’ or ‘Blue vine’, the famous 19th Century English botanist, Thomas Nuttall, named the genus. There are conflicting stories as to whether he named it as he claimed, after the renowned anatomy and anthropologist professor Dr Caspar Wistar, changing the ‘a’ to an ‘e’ for euphony; or after his close friend, Charles Wister. We will likely never know for sure.

Both species can be found at Winterbourne. Wisteria sinensis, with its classic mauve purple flowers, can be found on the Terrace and was planted by Margaret Nettlefold herself.

Wisteria floribunda ‘Macrobotrys’ grows on the Pergola and also the Top Lawn. It has striking, much longer flowers than Wisteria sinensis that are violet-blue.

Chinese wisteria first appears in the West in 1816 when cuttings were brought to Britain by John Reeves, Chief Inspector of Tea at Canton in China. Reeves had been commissioned by Joseph Banks to acquire plants for the Horticultural Society of London. It is reputed that obtained two cuttings of ’’Zi Ten’’ from the garden of a merchant in Canton and to ensure their safe passage back to England dispatched one with Captain Welbank on HCS Cuffnells and the other with Captain Rawes on HCS Warren Hastings.

The two specimens were handed to gardening enthusiasts Charles Hampden Turner of Greenwich and Thomas Carey Palmer of Bromley.

It is quite amazing that they actually survived their new homes, as their treatment, as reported by the Curtis Botanical Magazine of 1819, was far from what we now know the plant desires!

Further early introductions are as confusingly intertwined as the vine itself but it appears that soon after Reeves’ specimens arrived, two additional cuttings sailed in. One was given to Kew Gardens and unfortunately did not survive, while the other is claimed to have been planted at the front of the Head Brewer’s cottage at Fuller’s Griffin Brewery in Chiswick, London, where it continues to bloom today and is often cited as the UK’s oldest living Wisteria plant.

Chinese wisteria then grew quickly in popularity in Britain. By 1819 cuttings were selling for about six guineas each and by 1835 it was so common that plants sold for less than two shillings.

Cultivars were developed and became widely available. At Winterbourne you can see examples of these with Wisteria sinensis ‘Prolific’ and Wisteria brachybotrys f. albiflora ‘Shiro-kapitan’ growing on the Pergola. W. ‘Prolific’ has and has stunning, fragrant violet-blue flowers whilst W. ‘Shiro-kapitan’ has long sprays of white flowers.

Today there are a number of famous Wisteria around the British Isles. One of perhaps the most spectacular spreads is the longest in the UK and can be found at Wickham Place Farm near Witham, Essex. At 13ft high and 252ft long it takes two weeks to prune and the 1000 ties, attaching it to the old garden wall, have to be replaced annually!

Many people enjoy the beauty of less radical displays of Wisteria in their own gardens. It can be grown in any sunny or partially shaded site but they do particularly well on a south or west facing aspect in moist, well-drained soil.

The plants need pruning twice a year; in January-February and July-August. The long, whippy green shoots need to be shortened to 6 buds after flowering in the summer which helps control the size of the plant.

Then, in January/February you should shorten the same growths from 6 buds down to 3 buds when the plant is dormant with no leaves. This pruning regime will encourage your Wisteria to flower better the following year.

Wisteria will grow from seed but it can take 15 years to flower! It is better to take basal softwood cuttings from side shoots in early or mid-summer and use bottom heat to enable them to strike.

The final word is one of caution. However beautiful and alluring you find wisteria it is worth remembering that it is a mildly poisonous plant, mainly for cats and dogs. Every part is poisonous, especially seeds. If only few seeds are ingested they can cause mild abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and depression of the central nervous system, so care should be taken in its maintenance, especially if you own pets.

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