Monday, August 6, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Wisteria

Wisteria can be a stunning addition to your garden.

Common Name: Wisteria
Scientific Name: Wisteria species
Family: Fabaceae (the Legume, Pea, or Bean family)

Common Species:
Japanese Wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) – often with a Concord grape-like scent
American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) – typically not very fragrant
Kentucky Wisteria (Wisteria macrostachya) – typically not very fragrant
Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) – most fragrant, often a Concord grape-like scent
Silky Wisteria (Wisteria venusta) – largest flowers, fragrant

Wonderful Wisteria privacy screen.

Description:
This beautiful, large woody vine is famous for its large, and sometimes fragrant, racemes (pendulous cluster of flowers) in purples, pinks, and white. However, this fast growing vine also puts nitrogen back into the soil and attracts many beneficial insects to the garden. A standout for the Forest Garden.

History:
There are 10 species of Wisteria that are native to eastern North America and Asia (China, Korea, and Japan), but because of its showy flowers, it has been introduced all over the world.


Trivia:
  • The world’s largest Wisteria vine is in California, planted in 1894, and measures more than 1 acre (0.40 ha) in size!
  • Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) flowers were cured with sugr and mixed with flower to make a delicacy called “Teng Lo” – I have yet to find the recipe for this

Wisteria's abundant flowers attract bees and other beneficial insects.

USING THIS PLANT
Primary Uses:
  • Ornamental
  • Edible Parts: There are many reports that the entire plant contains a toxic substance (a glycoside); however, there are only a few reports in the medical literature (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8433406). There are also many reports of traditional cultures, especially in Asia, that eat many parts of this plant. It is quite likely that heat destroys this toxic compound. Here is a great article on Wisteria from Green Dean of Eat the Weeds (http://www.eattheweeds.com/wisteria-criteria-2/). Until I find more reliable information one way or the other, I’m not going to be eating a lot of Wisteria, but I am dying to try some Wisteria Fritters… I’ll let you know when I do.
  • Flowers -  washed and boiled or battered and fried into fritters.
  • Seeds - cooked or baked. Baked Japanese Wisteria seeds are said to have a taste similar to chestnuts.
  • Leaves – young, tender leaves are cooked and eaten, and may be used as a tea substitute.


Secondary Uses:
  • Nitrogen Fixer – puts nitrogen back into the soil which may be used as a fertilizer to other plants.
  • General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
  • Lacewings prefer to lay eggs on this plant
  • Parasitic Wasps prefer to live around this plant
  • Thickets can create habitat for small birds and mammals and other wildlife
  • Can grow seasonally along structures (fences, arbors, pergolas, etc.) which would be great at blocking or directing wind, providing Summer shade, or seasonal privacy screens
  • Fiber from the plant has been used to make paper, thread, and cloth.


Yield: No reliable information
Harvesting: October - December.
Storage: Best used fresh or dried

DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
USDA Hardiness Zone: 4-9
AHS Heat Zone: No reliable information available
Chill Requirement: Likely considering the Hardiness Zone and the flowering nature of this plant, but there is not reliable information available.

Plant Type: Large woody vine with seasonal herbaceous growth
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Vertical/Climbing Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: Many species and varieties available

Pollination: Self-Pollinating/Self-Fertile
Flowering: Summer. May-July. Flowers on when mature which may take only a few years with Kentucky Wisteria (Wisteria macrostachya), but can take up to twenty years with Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis)


Life Span:
Years to Begin Flowering: 1-2 years, especially with plants propagated through cuttings, but can take 20+ years for plants propagated from seed
Years of Useful Life: Easily dozens of years. Many documented vines are over one hundred years old.

Wisteria vines can be large, strong, and aggressive - plan well.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
Size: 20-50 feet (6-15 meters) tall and wide – depends on the species/variety
Roots: Strong, extensive root system, can be heart-shaped
Growth Rate: Fast

GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
Light: Prefers full to partial shade
Shade: Tolerates light to medium shade
Moisture: Prefers medium wet soils, Kentucky Wisteria (Wisteria macrostachya) can tolerate wet soils
pH: most species prefer fairly neutral soil (5.5-7.5)


Special Considerations for Growing:
  • Avoid fertilizing Wisteria with nitrogen – this plant can produce its own nitrogen, so excess will inhibit flower production.
  • Choose the location for planting carefully. The strong roots can destroy walls and pavement if planted too close.
 
Propagation: Hardwood cuttings. Softwood cuttings. By seed, but plants grown from seed may take decades to bloom.


Maintenance:
Depending on the location and the amount of room you have, some pruning may be required to keep the vine in bounds.

Concerns:
  • Can spread quickly to a large size. Consider this when choosing a planting location and when determining how much seasonal pruning you desire to do.
  • Roots can be vigorous and expansive in some species.
  • Poisonous (see comments above)


11 comments:

  1. Hi I have seen pictures of a giant Wisteria tree in Japan so very old! It makes me wonder how it can become a tree? I would assume that it was wound around itself many times over the years? So much Wisteria I see travels like wandering vines. Any insight on this?

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  2. Sorry for the delay in response... I must have missed it.

    It is all in how you prune it. Wisteria wants to be a vine, but with a lot of training, and pruning, you can get a "tree" form. However, this is not its natural desire.

    John

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  3. Ever heard of anyone making baskets out of the vines. I've tried/am trying and it seems like it should work. I think my basketry skills aren't up to the task yet no matter the material.

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  4. I love wisteria-it is my favorite flower! BUT it's vines crawl along the ground (too low to cut off by mowing) and spreads indefinitely...It runs a few feet, puts down a root, runs a few feet, etc. And it's a quick grower-several feet a month with vines so tough you can NOT break them by hand. It will strangle a medium sized tree, and it gets so thick that a child can walk on a wire fence that is overgrown by it. (Ask me how I know!) Think of it as a most aggressively spreading bamboo in vine form. Please be careful with it!

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  5. Hi John,
    I appreciate your writings and wanted to ask a question. By any chance do you know of an effective removal technique for older established vines perhaps 20 to 30 years old and/ or younger vines which may or may not be suckers? Looking for permaculture minded ideas. I appreciate your time effort and any information you can share.

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  6. JP - I have not come across a way to completely eradicate Wisteria without using toxic chemicals (like Round-Up), which I would rather avoid at almost all cost.

    If I had land with Wisteria on it, I would embrace it for what it is, and be very aggressive with pruning. I personally love Wisteria, and I will add some in very select places on my property (soon!). However, I will prune it back, like crazy, every year.

    If there were old vines, that I no longer wanted, I would perform a major pruning - to the ground, I would dig up as much of the root as possible (without performing major excavation work), and I would remove the cuttings entirely from the property.
    - Burning the cuttings may be best to avoid new growth - potentially using the heat for other purposes would be a good option.
    - Using the smaller diameter, more supple branches for weaving baskets or other crafts could be useful, or potentially selling the cuttings on Craig's List (or similar) for craft wood may be a way to actually make some money off of it.

    Then, once a month, I would head over the the Wisteria location and aggresively search for sprouts, and then cut them back to the ground. If you do this over and over again, it may be enough to kill it eventually. You could build the burn pit right over the Wisteria root mass to help kill the root system if it is in an area where you can safely build a fire. You could also consider using a propane torch to heat-kill as much of the root system as possible as well.

    Wisteria is notoriously tough to eradicate which is why so many people use herbicides, which still doesn't always do the job. Keeping it in-bounds may be the best way to deal with it.

    I hope that gives you some ideas!
    John

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  7. Wisteria has eaten about three acres of my twenty. Some years it's so beautiful that many park in an adjacent lot just to look at it.

    I'd love to have less of it, but won't poison at this point. I thought of grazing goats on it but I've been told it's poison to them, or at least the seeds are, so I don't want to take the chance.ive thought of digging up old vines and potting and selling them with metal tags with instructions to prune and never let the tendrils touch the ground. any other ideas out there?

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  8. My wisteria is too close to my house, the trunk is getting thicker. It was planted a bout 15 years ago. Any suggestion on how to trim it? Thank you

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  9. I've tried burning Wisteria vines that I cut down from a plant that had grown to 20 feet high. They will not burn. I let them dry for 3 months, used an old tire and some old 2 x 6's as starter, and the danged stuff just will not burn ! Someone should make fireproof insulation out of the vines.

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