Monday, 25 January 2010


A massive wisteria at the Villa Carlotta, Menaggio, on Lake Como, Italy.

A while ago, in a comment posted on the fascinating blog Constant Gardener, VP (who actually lives here) mentioned, that gardener and nurseryman extraordinaire, Keith Wiley, had talked about growing a walk of free-standing wisterias. What an absolutely spiffing idea! (And what an absolutely frightful opening sentence!)

I remember Keith from some years ago, as an inspired young head gardener at the Garden House, Buckland Monachorum, in rainy Devon. He was for ever bubbling over with enthusiasm and vim, cutting whacking great holes in hedges to make big vistas and doing all sorts of exciting and original things, all on a twopenny-ha'penny budget.

But a wisteria walk! Now there's a concept. Mmmmmm!

Picture it: strolling down a classically hogginned pathway, with a lovely on your arm as you pass under branches hung with elegant racemes, bee-loud by day but luminous in the romantic moonlight. If a nightingale warbled in the background and a flute of Dom Perignon gently effervesced in the hand that wasn't supporting the lovely, it would be true perfection. Eden would look tawdry by comparison.

But wisteria, now. Was there ever a more strongly paradoxical love-hate relationship than between the gardener and wisteria?

One has, first, to understand a little about this most wonderful but exasperating of all climbers. The obvious virtues are blindingly, well, obvious! But those virtues are evident for little more than a fortnight each year, and only then, if conditions are right, if the sparrows haven't pecked off the buds and if you pruned it as you should. Even then, an untimely air frost can snatch away all joy, on the very brink of glory.

Wisteria's subtler virtues need time to engage with, and an appreciative eye. The foliage is naturally golden, in a subtle sort of way, deepening and warming its hue to old gold each autumn. The emerging baby leaves are bronze-tinged, though, making a coppery contrast with the blossoms.

But those ancient stems! In age, they become magnificently gnarled, distorted, convoluted and fascinating. As with Dickens' characters, they are over-blown and exaggerated - a surreal tangle of elephant limbs. In summer, these huge, tortuous trunks are modestly dressed with semi-concealing foliage but all is bared, in winter: a shocking exposé of knots and couplings, with twiggy blossom spurs and stunted little side-branches punctuating the heavyweight limbs.

My free-standing Wisteria floribunda 'Rosea'

The damnedest thing about wisterias is that they won’t flower. They they won't grow where you want them to, either, and never end up as the perfect framework, furnishing the wall at even intervals. The stems are so impotent, in youth, that they need tying up with string every six inches. But in maturity, they're so craggy and bloody minded that the stone wall on which they are trained seems bendier. Wisterias on my parents' house undermined the fabric and then, in a fit of remorse, helped to prop the the building up with their massive trunks.

Keith Wiley's notion of a wisteria walk calls for acreage, not to mention patience. But anyone can do a single free-standing wistera. I've even seen some passable bonsai ones, though that is somewhat more esoteric than my gardening aspires to.

We had some beauties at my last house. Their blossoms looked superb against the beige oölitic limestone walls and when we moved, six years ago, they were among the plants I missed most. So for consolation, I planted three at our current gaff. One, Wisteria sinensis covers part of a the south elevation where it makes friends with Rosa banksiae 'Lutea.' The other two, W. floribunda 'Alba' and the quaintly pink-flowered W. floribunda 'Honko,' 'Hon-Beni' or 'Rosea' - depending on which authority you refer to, are trained to be free standing.

Wisteria floribunda enduring bondage.

I wasn't sure how one is supposed to force a rampant climber to be a well-behaved, non-clingy, small tree. So I did it with my usual combination of ignorance, poor horticulture and crass brutality. I filched some solid metal stakes - they'd once formed part of an estate's stately enclosures, no doubt - and rammed them into the ground. My good friend Chris Bailes, curator at Rosemoor, had told me that if you allow the young stem to twine round a metal pole it will, eventually, engulf that pole and thus develop a heart of steel. I did just that, and already, parts of the metal are nicely engulfed. (Hope no one attempts to chainsaw these up in 100 years time!)

As for the top growth, I didn't want to do the conventional umbrella trainer thing. I know the Victorians loved those, but I think they look contrived and horrible, so instead I had lots of fun subjecting my wisteria plants to bondage sessions. Each main stem (side shoots correctly pruned to seven buds in August and three in January) had a length of Nutscene jute string tied to its tip and was then strained downwards so that the other end of the string could be tied to the stake. And so far, it has worked. Both trees are pretty in spring, looking reasonably natural and un-umbrella-ish. Both are also developing an interesting winter outline. I took the strings away last winter but the branches remain elegantly bent.

Wisteria floribunda 'Rosea.' The racemes are pretty for a fortnight.

There's more on Keith Wiley here and a really nice little bloginterview with him here.

I'm listening to Brahms's B minor Clarinet Quintet Opus 115, the dreamy slow movement.

This week's film was The Green Man, a slight but rather charming farce made in 1956 and starring Alastair Sim, George Cole, Terry Thomas and Jill Adams. Basil Dearden and Robert Day directed. While audiences were watching this comedy of errors, Suez was going on and the Russians were driving tanks over Hungarians. It's a funny old world, isn't it?

This day in 1980, a Sunday, I spent the morning cleaning out the fireplaces and helping my elder son to do his homework. (He was seven.) After a lunch of roast pork, I moved some rose bushes and juggled plants in a spring border.

We have another snowdrop out. Bye bye!


  1. I love the title to this blog post.

    Wisterias are elegantly sublime, if there aren't any up in heaven, I'll be asking for a refund.

    It would be no bad thing if all gardeners encouraged clients to have free-standing Wisterias. I feel I have a new mission in life.

  2. There iS a short Wisteria walk at Hampton Court in Herefordshire - very lovely

  3. I love your free standing wisteria. I wonder if it would grow in North Wales at 700 feet in a stony, fast draining soil? I know it doesn't sound likely but some things do, in fact some things love it.
    You have got me thinking now.

  4. Ah yes, what is it about wisteria. I adore mine. From about now I am constantly examining the buds to check they are the fat flower ones & then when it does flower & the perfume wafts into our back room when the windows are open. It si just too sublime. And I feel very privileged as my W sinensis meets my Rosa baksiae lutea....mixing with the great & the good here!

    But back to the free standing jobbies; a friend down the road has a wondeful white one which I have lusted after for years....if I had room.

  5. I am swooning over your 'Rosea'. That was well worth waiting for - thank you Nigel! Thanks also for the instructions - a free-standing wisteria is now on my list of dream plants to grow one day. Truly lovely. Now I just need a bit more acreage...

  6. Oh dear! I had a wisteria 'purple dragon' rambling over my shed and what a pullava that was. I had been desperate to have one for years and finally paid more than a few quid for one that was a bit more mature. I followed all possible advice about pruning etc. and it did flower every year - a bit - but always, no matter what I did, the racemes were obscured by leaf growth. It never achieved the desired effect of flowering on bare wood and the leaves turned a hideous yellow where for some reason I had thought they would be greyish green. Nevertheless I couldn't bring myself to part with it despite its appearance being a permanent annoyance. Last year it went to the dump along with the decaying shed and quite frankly it has been a relief!

  7. Nigel, I love wisteria blossoms but don't like having to care for the plant itself. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to enjoy them through your post.

  8. What a nice blog!
    I love flower pictures due to I suck for everything related to botanical stuff.
    Thanks for sharing those gorgeous gallery