The Netflix series Bridgerton hit upon something when they draped the windows of the family home in a gauze of wisteria. What better botanical accomplice than a rampant vine to safeguard a family’s secrets? Truth is, the wisteria on the Bridgerton mansion is strictly the ruse of savvy stylists who were given the rather stern façade of real life Ranger’s House—a historic Georgian villa which currently serves as an art museum in London—and figured it needed a little levity. Then, we all fell hard for the ploy. After all, romantic, rampant, naughty, beguilingly headstrong wisteria feels so perfect in the role.
Now, we all yearn to grow wisteria. With the same fervor that sent everyone rushing for Regency empire waists and tailcoats, we burn for wisteria. And truly, few other climbers match wisteria when it comes to accomplishing a seriously over-the-top performance. No poetic license was needed to festoon the Bridgerton façade so prolifically. Real life wisteria is sufficiently melodramatic to fill the bill and then some. We’re talking lacy, feathery leaves that look almost fern-like and are ravishing, even when the vine is not in blossom. And there is a lot of these leaves and ample vine (more about that later). But that’s not all. From those wayward branches, flowers emerge. Wisterias spend spring nearly smothered in curtains of oversized pea flowers draping 1-3 feet down. In other words, you could easily be secluded beneath a wisteria arbor and effectively remain screened from the world’s prying eyes. And sometimes, privacy is convenient.
Chinese and Japanese Wisterias
Judging strictly by physical appearances, this vine is straight out of central casting with several options. Depending upon the cultivar, the flower hues range from dewy white through heavenly blue to purple. Want to outdo the Bridgertons? There is an ethereal wisteria tunnel of varying colors all blooming simultaneously in Katakyushu, Japan that you might copy. It was accomplished with Asian wisterias. Until recently, Asian wisterias dominated the American market. And in reality, Wisteria sinensis (Chinese wisteria) was not introduced into cultivation until 1816 followed by Wisteria floribunda (Japanese wisteria) introduced in 1830. The Netflix drama begins in 1813, which we will chalk up to creative freedom… But the vine did become wildly popular in the 19th Century, and for good reason—including the long duration of its performance. Of the Asian wisterias commonly grown, Wisteria sinensis tends to blossom a week before W. floribunda for a performance that can linger 4-5 weeks of divine splendor. Besides the timing of the flower show (which is also dependent on the weather), there is one characteristic that defines these two very similar siblings. Japanese wisteria vines wind clockwise whereas its Chinese cousins travel counterclockwise. There is also a fragrance factor—the Japanese wisteria (W. floribunda) tends to be more headily perfumed.
Another lesser-known Asian wisteria native to mountain woodlands in Japan is Wisteria brachybotrys, the silky wisteria. Although not as commercially available as the other non-native wisterias in the United States, this species forms shorter clusters of blossoms on energetic vines. Hardy from Zones 5-10, it produces an abundant crop of lightly fragrant, violet-colored spring flowers followed by fuzzy seedpods later in the season. A shimmering white version named ‘Shiro Kapitan’ is available from specialty nurseries.
Should You Plant Wisteria?
But is growing this vine a good idea? Wisteria is notoriously naughty. Both Asian wisterias are fast-growing vines that reach formidable heights and form hefty vining trunks to support their ambitions. When plant catalogs describe their habit as “overwhelming vigor,” they are not exaggerating in the least. Think of Wisteria floribunda and W. sinensis as social climbers, and the fact that they tend to strangle and crush their supports makes perfect sense. Stunning and entertaining though they may be, you don’t want to grow either of these athletes on a structure that cannot bear significant weight. Columns that they climb are in peril of being squeezed into oblivion. Porches that they lean on can collapse. Additionally, as the stems add age and girth, they squeeze their hosts, and that’s just their vertical issues. Wisterias also do scary horizontal stunts. They can send whips traveling underground to pop up where least expected. Plus, the long, handsome seedpods disperse plenty of progeny to carry on the family name.
Meanwhile, the weather is unlikely to nip a wisteria’s action in the bud. These plants come from sturdy stock. Japanese wisteria is hardy from Zones 4 and Chinese wisteria has a hardiness range of Zones 5. All parts of wisterias are poisonous—for people as well as critters. In other words, a wisteria’s progress will not be curtailed by deer or similar nibblers.
American Native Wisterias
Fortunately, there is a solution. The American native Wisteria frutescens exhibits better manners. It is a slightly more demure version of its Asian cousins, forming more tightly held and scaled down grape-like clusters of fragrant, deep purple flowers. Granted, this inhabitant of swamps and moist habitats from Illinois to Florida and Texas can climb 15-30 feet, just like its Asian counterparts. Fortunately, it doesn’t have their heft, their muscle, or their pushy invasive personality. Hardy from Zones 5-9, W. frutescens is a totally viable alternative, forming a handsome package with slightly scaled down dimensions and plenty of color. ‘Amethyst Falls’ is the cultivar most often offered and it allows gardeners to grow this most captivating vine without fear that their property will be overwhelmingly and irretrievably engulfed.
There was a time when Wisteria macrostachya, the Kentucky wisteria, was thought to be a variety of Wisteria frutescens until botanists gave this south/central United States native its own species status. Not only does this species send lavender blue blossom spikes showering down in longer racemes than W. frutescens, it also reputedly flowers reliably in chilly Zone 3. ‘Blue Moon’ is a cultivar that is reported to rebloom repeatedly during the growing season.
Pushy personalities are just one factor standing between you and a stage set version of heaven. Another issue associated with wisterias is their more-than-occasional failure to perform. Wisterias are frequently slow to blossom, and sometimes they fail to flower even in maturity. Although it might seem counter-intuitive, the remedy is actually to prune the vines super sternly, which also helps to keep their wayward tendencies in check.
Most texts encourage pruning at least twice a year—after blooming and in autumn. But gardeners with extensive wisteria experience—especially caretakers of historic homes draped in this most popular of vines—suggest monthly pruning if possible, nipping growth back to 1-3 leaf buds. Although labor-intensive, this stern treatment apparently encourages flower bud production.
An important factor when planting is sun. Wisterias dote on it. Lack of sufficient light is often cited as a possible reason for unsatisfactory performance. Keep in mind that neighboring trees might one day shade this vine with longevity in its genes and plant accordingly. Poor soil usually does not inhibit a wisteria, but drought can crimp its style, especially if it is newly planted. Get the hoses out if you decide to adopt.
There is a lot to consider before you fall deeply in love with a wisteria. The front they present to the world is just part of their backstory. But don’t let us get in the way of your fantasy. By all means, keep on admiring the television version of this vine. We’re assuming that the wisteria in Bridgerton was facing south, that it was properly raised, and sternly clipped. Corseting optional.
By Tovah Martin
Drama in the Garden
Wisteria vines grow in many gardens featured in FLOWER magazine. We’ve gathered photos of some of our favorites to illustrate just how appealing—and often dramatic—wisterias can be.
Tourists walking in the famed Wisteria Tunnel at Kawachi Fuji Garden in Katakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan. Photo by Chanawin Tepprasitsakda / Shutterstock.com
A Floral Facade
At this 3-story Kensington home (suitable for a Bridgerton heir), purple blooms of a single, trained wisteria plant surround all the windows on the facade. Photo by Georgianna Lane from her book, London in Bloom (Abrams Image). See more of Georgianna’s London florals.
Pink Wisteria Tree
A pink wisteria, trained into a small treeform shrub, in the reposing gardens of The Whim, the Newport, Rhode Island home of the late Oatsie Charles. Photo by Mick Hales. See more from The Whim and its gardens.
Curtain of Flowers
An especially long-flowered cultivar of Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) creates a curtain of blossoms to complement a bed of blue irises in this English garden. Photo courtesy of London-based plantsman and gardener Alexander Hoyle, and originally featured in our Top 20 Instagram Posts of 2020. Follow Alexander Hoyle on Instagram @alexander.hoyle.
Deep in Tuscany, in the spectacular gardens of La Foce, the gnarled, lavishly-hung, lavender wisteria pergola is both a vision and cool shaded passageway. Photo by Alex Ramsay. Learn more about La Foce.
Cascades of Blossoms
Eight varieties of wisterias grow in the gardens at Filoli in Woodside, California. White wisteria (Wisteria sinensis ‘alba’) grows on the on the wall, while purple blossoms of Wisteria floribunda ‘Violacea Plena’ cascade with yellow Lady Banks rose over the doorway of the Chauffeur’s Cottage and flower-laden branches of a weeping cherry tree fill the center of the Service Courtyard. Photo by Dani Hielscher, courtesy of Filoli Historic House & Garden. See our feature on Filoli.
Pruned to Perfection
Carefully pruned wisteria vines run along the top of the wall, festooning the front of this Piedmont, California house. The house and gardens were designed by Willis Polk, who also designed the house at Filoli. Photo by Marion Brenner for Private Gardens of the Bay Area (Monacelli Press). See more of this dreamy California garden and two others from the book.