Taking it out on the wisteria



I like plants that I can hack at and mangle without fear of consequences, and it is this quality that may be wisteria’s saving grace as a garden feature. Otherwise, why would we put up with it? It’s alien, it’s aggressive, its roots have been known to heave up paving, and its branches can easily lift off a roof. Though the blooms are lovely and fragrant, it blooms in profusion once in the early spring and only sporadically after that. For many, many wisteria-owners, the vine never blooms at all, going for a decade without a single flower. And regardless of bloom, from early summer to late frost, we can count on having to trim it back almost every other day.

Bad plant! Bad plant!

Sometimes I wonder if I have one of the baddest wisterias of all. Mine has become a weird triangular mass bridging the corner of our garage and the pond area. It kind of looks like a huge, leafy baseball cap hovering above the garden. The fronds grow continuously, reaching over to the neighbor’s and down to the pond. It does bloom, but maybe better if it didn’t, because the flowers become trapped between the upper and lower branches, unable to hang free in the graceful way a properly trained (ha) wisteria should. You have to go and stand under it and look up to see them.

So it should come as no surprise that I have been sharpening all my pruners, preparing for a large-scale, aggressive, and utterly punitive attack on the beast. The idea is that if I thin out the lower branches, the blooms hanging from the sunny upper branches will become visible. It’s not the proper time to prune wisteria, but this is the only time I can clearly see the branch configuration, which later will be hidden under a mass of leaves and other vines (some campsis and clematis that use the wisteria as support, as you can see above).

Anyway, I can’t wait for a chance to start chopping this thing. I know it can take anything I dish out; there is virtually no way—short of bulldozing and dynamite—I can kill it. And that’s why I love it. It wants me to attack it; I can take out the aggressions of a year of Mondays on it and it will still be there. Ready for more.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Few plants engender such strong emotions in me. But I really dislike wisteria. I wage a constant battle to keep it moving out a public forest and into my 6 aces here in central Alabama. Me—I think it is worse than kudzu.

  2. I always thought wisteria wouldn’t grow on my frigid Massachusetts hill, but wanted to try in 1990. The poor plant had to grow in a pot until August when my husband and sun finally finished the arbor it was to cover. In 1999 by husband threatened to rip it out if it didn’t grow to the top of the arbor by 2000. It did, and thrived, but didn’t bloom until 2006! Beautifully. Luxuriantly. And then a killing winter which it barely survived. No blooms in 2007. It has recovered so well I have hopes for this spring. I’m glad for your encouragement that improper pruning won’t destroy it. Thanks.

  3. Pam, hats off to my partners, who manage to do two or more blogs. I just couldn’t and concluded that it was stupid to keep a blog up that I haven’t posted to since February 2007.

    Elizabeth, the whole idea of a trumpet vine–heavy, woody, aggressive– being supported by wisteria is so kinky, well, I’m just speechless.

    Wisteria is not just beautiful in bloom. Its leaves are beautiful, its trunk is beautiful. People put up with it because it is a beautiful plant. Now, I need to go buy one!

  4. Has anyone tried the native American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens)? It is reputed to be less aggressive, flower even when young and then sporadically flower throughout the summer. I don’t think it’s quite as abundant in flowering, but hey, if some aren’t getting any flowering with the Japanese Wisteria anyway, this might be a plant to check out for the Wisteriaphobes. It is sweetly scented too.

  5. I have a love-hate relationship with the 40 year old wisteria that covers the back yard arbor.
    It is drop dead beautiful when it blooms which is heaviest in mid March to late April but the amount of daily maintenance that is required to keep the fallen blossoms from clogging up drains, plugging up the tanks on my bromeliad collection below it and creating a 2 inch thick mulch layer over our outdoor dining and living room is a major daily grind that I’m getting tired of.
    It wouldn’t be so bad if this happened for just one month or so in the spring but I have some kind of mutant wisteria that continues to bloom its heart out all spring, summer and fall long.
    I’ve been saving up for a conservatory to replace the wisteria covered arbor area.
    That day when the wisteria comes down and the conservatory goes up will be a bitter sweet day.

  6. Funny, my version is the trumpet vine. It was here when I bought my house 14 years ago and has always been my biggest problem. It comes up through the driveway, on the other side of the driveway, climbs up the trees, devours the lilacs, pops up 30 feet away from the original plant, you get the idea. I have yet to come up with a solution. I don’t want to hurt the the trees, lilacs or great patch of lily of the valley underneath! So I just leave it year after year, my angst growing along with it.

  7. New reader. I enjoyed your rant on wisteria. My dad constructed a “lath-house” in our backyard when I was a kid. It had four 6×6 solid posts for corners, 2x4s loosely framing walls and ceiling, and it was sided in laths spaced widely to let in filtered sunlight. His idea was to grow coleus in there.

    Then he though of planting one wisteria at each corner. For the first two or three years it was GORGEOUS! In the fourth year, it lifted the whole lath-house off the ground, ala Jack and the Beanstalk. He left it there for a while because it was so funny to look at, but eventually tore it down and dug out the wisteria.

    He never rebuilt the lath-house. 30 years later, the wisteria is still trying to come back.

  8. I just came in from the front garden where I have just worked my rotten wisteria trunk free and thrown it in the yardwaste for pick up.

    I thrilled at this vine for years, even as it worked its way underneath my siding and strangled my power lines.

    A few years ago I finally gave up. I was so sick of the constant maintenance, I took a pruning saw to the main trunk the size of WWF’s wrestler’s thigh. It tried to gain its hold throwing shoots up along the roots that held it in place. It was an emotional battle but I kept trimming away and it gave up. I loved that plant for a good twenty years and it had been in the ground for 20 years before I met it. I think I’ll break out the champagne and toast not to its demise but for the beauty it provided for so long while I still had the patience for it.

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