Our Strange Love-Hate Relationship with Wisteria


About this time every spring we put our noses to the air and inhale the heavy perfume of flowering wisteria wafting through the air.  Available in many garden centers and sold as pest free, deer resistant, fast growing, Wisteria seems to be the perfect solution for customers looking to bring some quick growing color onto their property.

In addition, wisteria is relatively tolerant of poor soils, and does not require frequent watering or fertilizing.  So here you have it, the perfect growing flowering vine to adorn your home’s façade, garden trellis, fence or wall for years to come!

So all kidding aside, anyone who’s purchased this plant know show aggressive it can be, and how it wreaks havoc on almost anything it attaches itself to.  We’re certain most people who’ve mistakenly planted this vine around the house are aware of the destruction certain species of Wisteria have on building facades and garden structures.  So goes our strange love-hate relationship with wisteria.

Like members of most families, some varieties are somewhat better behaved than others. Silky wisteria (Wisteria brachybotrys) has 8-14″ long leaves divided into 9-13 leaflets with white, large, highly fragrant flowers. Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) offers selections in pink, varying shades of blue, in addition to more commonly found lavender and purple versions. But it’s Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) that’s taken its place with kudzu and Japanese stilt grass and as the vine that smothers abandon structures and entire hillsides.  Chinese Wisteria can climb as high as 60 ft. above the ground and spread out 30 ft. laterally. The world’s largest known wisteria is in Sierra Madre, California.  It was planted in 1894 and measures more than 1 acre in size and weighing 250 tons.

According to the “Nonnative Invasive Plants of Southern Forests: A Field Guide for Identification and Control,” nonnative wisteria i.e. Japanese, Chinese, and silky, are not good plants for our landscapes and environment. Growing 10 inches in diameter, vines colonize, twisting and covering shrubs and trees; it roots at nodes on runners that scoot along the ground, many times hidden by leaf litter. But because this is an attractive plant that grows quickly and smells nice, it has been a pass-along favorite for generations until many gardeners couldn’t image spring without the vine. However, those who’ve been battling back these invasive monsters for years will point to the cost of controlling nonnative plant species in the US – around $138 billion a year, and they remind us that invasive vines, such as wisteria, kudzu, Japanese honeysuckle, Japanese stilt grass and English ivy have been responsible for a good chunk of that cost, especially in the southeast of the country.

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Ok so what about folks who, in spite of it’s less than stellar attributes, still adore this plant and want desperately to see it’s pendulous racemes (flower bundles) cascading down in showers of perfumed heaven? Well the good news is – there is a native form of this vine that is less vigorous, thinner stemmed, and with less potential to do damage than Asian forms. American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) and Kentucky wisteria (Wisteria macrostachya) both exhibit a ‘kinder, gentler’ growth habit, so those wanting wisteria but not the onus of planting nonnative invasive material can figuratively ‘have their cake and eat it too.’