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  • Writer's pictureJohn R

Wisteria Hysteria

Quiz: Can you tell the xenomorph from the wisteria? (Hint: wisteria is on the right)

After several unsuccessful attempts to grow vining clematis and morning glory on our backyard arbor, I finally planted a wisteria. Many friends tried to dissuade me, saying that wisteria was a close relative of the extraterrestrial xenomorph from the movie, Alien. They said it would likely devour our arbor and possibly our house. “You’ll be sorry,” they said, smugly.

How a cute little potted vine fresh out of the greenhouses could ever get so destructive was beyond our ken—okay, my ken—but at that point I was really wanting some vining action and I was willing to give wisteria a shot. So I planted one at the foot of an arbor post and pointed toward the sky. “Grow that-a-way,” I encouraged.

After several halting, unpromising years featuring stunted growth tips and renegade tendrils that flailed about in empty space, the wisteria finally managed to twist itself around the support post and work its way up to the top of the arbor. I figured it soon would spread out and add its big purple flower clusters to the backyard gestalt.

Sure enough, it began to luxuriate in the raw sun and open air, growing thick as it sprawled across the arbor like a python that had just swallowed a whole goat. In the spring of its fourth year the wisteria produced several of the big, luxurious flower clusters that wisteria is famous for. Hooray! We were on our way to wisteriastic bliss!

Wisteria attempting to strangle our smoke tree.

Flash forward another year. From my observation post on the back patio one day I noticed that wisteria tendrils had extended spectral arms across open space and had begun to weave their way into the innocent branches of our smoke tree, our zelkova, and the across-the-back-fence neighbors’ mountain ash. The wisteria had become subversive and was looking to annex the branches of nearby trees that were tantalizingly close to its arbor lair. It was engaging a covert infiltration designed to quietly extend its empire—clearly our wisteria had plans to take over the neighborhood.

I got the ladder and trimmed tendrils, quietly admonishing the plant for disrespecting other plants’ personal spaces. But from this elevated perspective, nose-to-nose with the wisteria’s leafy soul, it was clear that I’d underestimated a wisteria’s prime directive, which is to beautifully and elegantly overwhelm everything. Its twisting viney stems were thick and woody, its leaves vibrant, its relentless tendrils hunting for fresh purchase in every direction. The fact that so many trees and large shrubs had been planted so close to its clutches—perhaps human error was involved—meant frequent tendril-removal maintenance chores for moi (chores I may or may not accomplish, depending on my attentiveness which, let’s be frank, is spotty).

Keeping the wisteria in check will be an annual challenge that I’m doomed to lose by virtue of the plant’s superior cunning and will power. No doubt one day we’ll see wisteria blossoms drooping from the top of the zelkova and populating the branches of the smoke tree. Ultimately, the entire arbor, backyard fencing and several nearby houses will collapse in a kerfuffle of leaves and tendrils and overmatched lumber.

Of course, overcrowding has a solution, and judicious pruning is certainly one of them. So is digging up and relocating plants, and of course prior to purchase it wouldn’t hurt to pay attention to a plant’s pros and cons, checking to see if a particular plant has unfortunate habits, such as being predisposed to strangle arbors and neighbors.

Yeah, you're pretty. I forgive you.

A more intriguing option—and one that’s less work—is letting the plants figure it out for themselves. Survival of the fittest—which is a basic tenet of Schiddygarden and an idea that’s largely endorsed by doomsday preppers all over the world. (I’ll add with a bit of environmentalist snobbery that we garden organically, without chemicals, meaning that even if our garden is less-than-stellar, it’s organically less-than-stellar.)

Should I really let our plants duke it out, unsupervised? Good question! I’m going to sit right here in the patio sun, listen to the finches twittering in the zelkova, and keep an eye on those tendrils. I've got to admit, wisteria earns a lot of forgiveness by being good-looking, and in our garden, looks beat common sense every time. And if our wisteria’s Darwinian urges need some restraint, I’ve got my clippers at the ready.

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