In the back of my condo complex, in the garage area, there are trellises with Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) vines growing on them. These are trimmed back severely in December and then spend some time in dormancy. Now they are beginning to leaf out — a sign of spring. They grow very fast, and will be blooming, very fragrantly, surprisingly soon. (The plants are astonishingly vigorous.)

A close-up of blue Chinese wisteria (like the ones behind my condo):

And a sprawling purple variety trained on a post (and threatening the house next to it):

The story from Wikipedia, including some account of the name (which has a somewhat tangled history):

Wisteria (also spelled Wistaria or Wysteria) is a genus of flowering plants in the pea family, Fabaceae, that includes ten species of woody climbing vines native to the Eastern United States and to China, Korea, and Japan. Some species are popular ornamental plants, especially in China and Japan.

… The botanist Thomas Nuttall said he named the genus Wisteria in memory of Dr. Caspar Wistar (1761–1818). Questioned about the spelling later, Nuttall said it was for “euphony”, but his biographer speculated that it may have something to do with Nuttall’s friend Charles Jones Wister, Sr., of Grumblethorpe, the grandson of the merchant John Wister. (Some Philadelphia sources state that the plant is named after Wister.) As the spelling is apparently deliberate, there is no justification for changing the genus name under the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. However, some spell the plant’s common name “wistaria”

… Wisteria vines climb by twining their stems either clockwise or counterclockwise round any available support. They can climb as high as 20 m above the ground and spread out 10 m laterally. The world’s largest known Wisteria vine is in Sierra Madre, California, measuring more than 1 acre (0.40 ha) in size and weighing 250 tons, planted in 1894 of the Chinese lavender variety. [Not only do they climb; they can also send out lateral roots underground, which then pop up as new young shoots. You have to watch these plants attentively.]

The leaves are alternate, 15 to 35 cm long, pinnate, with 9 to 19 leaflets. The flowers are produced in pendulous racemes 10 to 80 cm long, similar to those of the genus Laburnum, but are purple, violet, pink or white, but not yellow. Flowering is in the spring (just before or as the leaves open) in some Asian species, and in mid to late summer in the American [native] species and W. japonica. The flowers of some species are fragrant, most notably Chinese Wisteria. The seeds are produced in pods similar to those of Laburnum, and, like the seeds of that genus, are poisonous.

Wisteria is considered an invasive species in many parts of the U.S., especially the Southeast, due to its ability to overtake and choke out other native plant species. [It can also do considerable damage to structures if not kept carefully in check.]

For two of my undergraduate years at Princeton, I lived in a dorm (Joline Hall) with wisteria trained on its walls. Incredibly fragrant in the spring, but something of an insect hazard, since the flowers attracted bees in huge numbers (and the windows were casement windows without screens).

[Update March 24th: this was posted on March 14th. Ten days later, there are already racemes in bloom. This plant moves fast.]


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