Wisteria is in full bloom in Charlotte.
This plant with woody, twining vines and flowing purple flowers has a sweet scent and grows on many undeveloped, unattended lots in Charlotte, climbing mature trees and covering shrubs.
But caution to the gardener who wants to bring this seemingly easy-going plant into their garden: Wisteria also has a dark side.
Blog garden expert Jeanne Rostaing said in a recent www.gardenista.com post that Marco Polo originally brought wisteria seeds from China in the 13th century. In the early 1800s, importers brought wisteria seeds from China and Japan to the U.S., but the resulting plants were disappointing. Graft cuttings worked better, and the Asian versions were replicated.
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Ben Fletcher has firsthand knowledge of wisteria as curator of the Clarkson Garden at Wing Haven Gardens and Bird Sanctuary in Myers Park.
Fletcher is a graduate of the University of Georgia and has degrees in business and landscape architecture. He spent seven years at the Shade and Native Gardens at the State Garden of Georgia. He’s been at Wing Haven for a year.
In Charlotte, wild wisteria is considered an invasive species that easily takes over native plants.
Fletcher said wisteria is hardy and spreads easily. The plant produces a seed pod that bursts, throwing seeds onto the ground as well as floating in the wind. Once a seed takes hold, unattended plants can produce vines that spread out hundreds of yards on the ground and climb to the top of mature trees.
Once established, wisteria can last a long time: Rostaing’s blog mentions plants in China that are more than 250 years old.
Charlotte City Arborist Don McSween, who has spent 33 years caring for trees, said that despite its tree-climbing propensity, wisteria is similar to ivy in that it’s not a parasite.
“It gets all it’s nutrients from the ground and just uses trees as a structure to grow on,” McSween said. “The risk of wisteria to a tree is that it might become so thick that over time it could shade the tree out or grow vines large enough to strangle off limbs.”
McSween’s department keeps a careful watch on city property to make sure wisteria is not a threat.
Fletcher says wisteria be tamed and is something Charlotte gardeners should consider adding to their yards.
“It’s one of those old-school Southern garden staples,” he said. “Visit any Southern garden and its there. From a historical perspective, I’d say keep it.”
Fletcher warns, however, that wisteria is a plant for gardeners motivated to manage it over the long haul.
He said that once wisteria has been planted and begins to grow, keep it trimmed to within the bounds of an arbor, pergola or fence. “When you see seed pods coming on, cut them off,” he said. “You want to stop it from spreading.”
Fletcher said wisteria blooms only on new growth, so prune plants in the winter, not spring, to get those gorgeous, droopy, aromatic flowers.
No one seems too worried about native wisteria getting out of control in Charlotte, so enjoy its flowers for a few more weeks.
Nancy Thomason is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Nancy? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information on wisteria, contact Wing Haven Gardens and Bird Sanctuary, 248 Ridgewood Ave., Charlotte, NC 28209; call 704-331-0664; or visit www.winghavengardens.org.