My wisteria looks dead

No, it’s not white wisteria!

Black locust flowers appear like white wisteria. Photo by Ken Moore

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

Last year, the purple wisteria draping the highway bypass around Carrboro-Chapel Hill ended its peak flowering on or about April 17. Appearing immediately afterward were grape-like clusters of white flowers hanging from trees like a late-flowering white wisteria.
As described in last week’s Flora, this spring’s flowering sequence is ahead of schedule, at least in our urban environment, where pavement and other factors provide warmer microclimates than what’s found in the cooler countryside.
Those of you who frequent the highway corridors around our town can anticipate seeing pendulous clusters of pure white flowers during the next week.
Those white flowers are the fragrant floral expression of common black locust, Robinia pseudocacia. But unlike the strangling wisteria, which is a vine, the locust is a tree. Both plants are in the bean family, and if you’ve been looking closely, you will have noticed small bean pods hanging from the bare locust branches all winter.
The original range of black locust is along the length of the Appalachians and in a large island-like area in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
The locust’s strong wood was commonly used by Native Americans for their hunting bows. One explanation for the trees’ naturalization across our state is that this western species traveled east with the native people.

Pioneer botanist Mark Catesby observed that early settlers commonly used locust wood for the foundation support posts that stabilized their cabins. Because of its resistance to decay, locust has been so prized for fence posts and arbors that one must search far and wide these days to find a substantial source for traditional ‘locust posts.’
Though locust is not the common forest tree in the piedmont that it is in the mountains, it’s valuable here as a naturalized plant that thrives in harsh conditions on disturbed sites. Like other members of the bean family, the locust’s ‘nitrogen-fixing’ roots improve barren soils for eventual succession by a diversity of other plant species. Thickets of black locust also provide essential habitat for numerous wildlife species.
Insect pests like the locust borer keep the plant in check. Whole populations of black locust develop a ‘burned’ look about them during the summer months because of the ravenous appetites of the locust leaf minor.
Though black locust was introduced as an ornamental tree in England in the 17th century, its overabundance in parts of the European countryside is attributed to British journalist William Cobbett’s early 19th-century promotion of the locust for its fast growth and long-lasting hard wood, “superior to oak for ship and house-building.” Those uses for the locust never fulfilled Cobbett’s expectations, and this American native now runs wild across some of Europe’s countryside, looking like a white wisteria in early spring.

Email Ken Moore at [email protected]
Read more Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora

Look for white-flowering black locust on the bypass soon. Photo by Ken Moore

Question: I’ve always liked wisterias but have no place to grow such a vine. Recently, I saw a tree wisteria at a nursery that would fit into my garden. I’d like to get it but wonder if it would be tricky to grow.

Answer: Wisteria not only produces beautiful pendant clusters of flowers, but it also fills the spring air with such a sweet fragrance. It’s no wonder that they are so popular, but they can grow so rampantly that their planting location needs to be chosen carefully.

Tree wisteria is simply a normal wisteria vine, Wisteria sinensis that has been trained as a tree by limiting the plant to one stem which is usually tied to a stake to give it vertical stability. When that stem reaches a height suitable for the trunk, the tip is pinched to promote branching. Buds below the head should be rubbed off, and any branches that grow too vigorously should be nipped back.

Wisterias thrive in any well‑drained soil, but they may develop chlorosis (yellow leaves) in alkaline soils. This may be remedied by applying an iron supplement. Young plants benefit from spring and early summer applications of general purpose fertilizer, but excessive fertilizer will diminish flower production in older plants. All plants require regular irrigation from the onset of flowering through summer.

Since wisteria is a member of the legume family, you may notice some fuzzy bean-like seed pods when flowering is over. These seed pods can persist into winter, but don’t bother planting the seeds unless you have years to wait for a seedling vine to flower.

Pruning should be done twice a year to keep wisteria under control. After flowering, the plant is likely to produce some vigorous growth. This new growth should be cut back after flowering is over, and no later than early summer, to keep the wisteria under control and maintain a tidy plant.

The second pruning occurs in winter. Unwanted branches may be thinned out or headed back to maintain the desired form. Watch for the round flower buds that will be present. Although the plant blooms in spring, the buds begin to form in summer for the following year’s bloom. You wouldn’t want to cut all of them off or you would get no flowers. Flowers may be white, pink, or lilac and all are fragrant.

Q: Once again, the Jacaranda trees are blooming and I am tempted to plant one. Are there any negatives to these showy trees?

A: How can anyone not admire the beautiful clouds of purple Jacaranda trees when they color the early summer landscape here? Climate-wise, Jacaranda is well-suited to the Inland Empire. There are only two cautions I would offer. The first is to plant your tree away from any sidewalks as the falling flowers can be rather messy, wet and slippery. The second is to avoid excessively windy locations as the wood is somewhat brittle and strong winds can cause broken branches. Other than that, Jacaranda should make a fine addition to your landscape.

Ottillia “Toots” Bier has been a UC Cooperative Extension master gardener since 1980. Send comments and questions to [email protected]


Wisteria Vines
by Cass Turnbull

“Wisteria is Latin for work.” I wish I knew who said that. But how true it is. Under those beautiful color photos of arbors splendidly vine-laced and hung with glorious lavender blooms, there ought to be a warning label: This Vine Can Be Dangerous, IT WANTS TO COVER…EVERYTHING.
Cisco Morris tells a story about the time he was house hunting. He saw a home advertised for sale in the paper — three bedroom, two bath, on Queen Anne Hill. The price was unbelievably low. Upon arriving at the site he realized why. Two ancient wisteria vines had overcome the home, actually lifting it off its foundation. Their stems were as big as tree trunks. I doubt it was an exaggeration. I’ve seen wisteria rip off balcony banisters, smother entire trees, and everyone knows what they’ll do to your roof and gutters.
I guess I didn’t know when I planted mine against the railing of the covered porch eleven years ago. But I’m not sorry, either. Despite the work, there is nothing quite as wonderful as a wisteria. I love the high excitement of watching the spring buds plump up and then expand. It’s so…erotic. Later, when it’s in full bloom, I watch people point and sigh as they pass my house. It makes my entryway look so…horticultural. And it smells sweet. In the winter the long fuzzy pods dangle down just above my head, as if asking to be petted. And I must oblige.
I read a lot of pruning books. They crack me up. I especially like the one that insists that you make your wisteria vine single trunked. To do that, I think you’d have to guard it with a flashlight. In reality, the main trunk is a combination of twisted and coiled stems. They look like an unruly rope. Wisteria just grow like that. I don’t know why they don’t girdle themselves, but they seem to do just fine.
Espallier. If you want to force side branching at a particular point (in my case I wanted the first set of scaffolds to train along the rail), you head-back (lop) the main stem at that point. Two of the new shoots are then tied into position to become the scaffolds. Or, as with mine, one became a scaffold, the other I shortened to about a six inches to become a “flowering short lateral”. The third shoot, is allowed (or trained by tying) to continue up to become the main trunk. Any other shoots are cut off completely.

Major scaffolds on a wall or lattice should be spaced at least 1 1/2 foot apart to allow room for the blooms to dangle down without running into each other. All other shoots (runners) are either cut off completely (and there are lots and lots of these) or shortened to about six or seven inches (four or five buds) if they are wanted for flower production. This is best done in the summer, with a follow up pruning in the winter (you can see because all the leaves are off). Further shortening in the winter means that you cut back the chosen lateral to three or four buds. This is similar to fruit tree training, to force vegetative shoots to become spur (flower) producing. As with fruit trees, flowering is more prolific on horizontal branches. In reality you will find that some of the shortened shoots set up flower buds, some die back, and some seem to be determined to be vegetative, sending out only long runners instead of forming a persistent spur system. Don’t ask me why.
Arbor or Trellis. In other situations, a wisteria vine is allowed to run to the top of the arbor or trellis and spread out as it desires. Later it can be trained somewhat like a grape vine, annually cutting off fifty percent of the canes back to a few major scaffolds to keep it from getting too piled-up upon itself. A preferable system is to painstakingly prune it like an espalliered fruit tree with “hands”, so that it has a beautiful winter branch pattern as well. Whenever necessary, whack back any laterals that try to run off the sides of the trellis or threaten to climb into neighboring plants or structures.
I think that wisterias look best trained to an overhead trellis with the blooms dangling down from above. Such an arbor or trellis needs to be very strong and sturdy. Use 2x4s set on edge, at the very least. Posts should be load bearing, not the flimsy lattice things you see for sale in catalogues or at garden stores.
If the trellis is attached to the house, I strongly recommend that you plant the vine on the farthest post and let it fill in by growing toward your house. You will be glad that you gave yourself that slight edge in later years as you find yourself tugging and tearing runners out of your gutters and shingles.
As a Standard or Tree. With the help of a sturdy stake or two, a wisteria can be trained into a sort of small free- standing tree. This is commonly done in the south. When the young vine reaches the top of the stake, whack it back to force it to bush out. The resulting young shoots later become the main framework of the tree canopy. The idea of the wisteria tree appeals to me since it can be situated in the middle of the yard, far from anything else. There it can be vigilantly watched and pruned on all sides.

Finally, SUMMER RUNNERS With all wisterias, scores of runners will reach out into empty air every summer, hoping to grab onto a nearby helpless victim. Cut them off before they strangle a sleeping dog or trip the gardener. This can mean pruning every month if it is in your way, say on your front porch. In any case, be certain to prune them off before winter when they harden off (stiffen and become woody, holding tightly to shingles, tree limbs, etc.) and are more difficult to remove.
Some runners I cut off to the trunk. Most I whack back just to get them out of the way (to about five or six inches). I do more detailed thinning and pruning in the winter when all the leaves have dropped off and I can see what’s going on.
In the summer, my freshly pruned wisteria vine looks sort of like a feather boa, just to give you an idea. By the way those runners can be used to make a tasteful simple wreath. Just wind them into a circle. Same with grapes.
UNDERPRUNING. The most common mistake is to not prune the wisterias enough. Over 90% of the new growth (zillions of long, relatively leaf-less, skinny budded, runners) is cut off annually. A single runner can grow twelve feet in one year. After the framework is established, shorten many of the runners to six buds. Remove the vast majority completely, every year!
RENOVATION. If it gets away from you or you have moved into a home that already has an enormous wisteria tangle, grabbing and strangling everything in sight, show no mercy. Lop, saw and chain saw whatever is necessary to get it back down. I suggest you cut several feet below where you want the regrown vine to be, since you will experience an upsurge of new shoots the following spring. As with all heading cuts, the new growth occurs directly beneath the cut and heads up from there. You will need some room to let it regrow over the next few years. New growth will be vegetative (not flowering) and rampant for a few years. I wouldn’t be surprised if some major stems die back partially or totally, if you make cuts one inch or over. But I doubt that you will kill the plant. As some stems die back, cut off the dead bits. Others will supply the replacement shoots to be tamed in upcoming years.
Wisteria blooming in the spring.

Summer growth – Head back runners to 6″ if they get in the way.

Winter pruning – It’s easier to see with the leaves off.

OVER PRUNING. I didn’t think it could be done. But I have witnessed three novice pruners over prune. Given a mature flowering vine, the pruner is tempted to remove too many of the flowering short laterals (I call them hands, because they are roughly the shape and size of human hands. Very old vines have flowering short-laterals that are as long as arms. These too should be left alone). These “hands” have the fat flower buds that are reminiscent of fruit tree spur systems. These fat-budded hands should be spaced about every foot or so. They originate from the main trunk or scaffolds. If they are pruned off or shortened too much the vine will appear sparse and have too few blooms. The next year, such over pruning will result in a wild (wilder than normal) resurgence of flowerless runners. The general idea then is to shorten or remove all the long, wild runners, and leave the “hands” to flower like crazy.
TOOLS. My relationship to grapes and wisterias changed dramatically when I finally bought a specialized tool called a ARS long reach pruner. No, it’s not a pole pruner. Its is light weight aluminum, with a trigger and a standard scissor type pruning head. Some (interchangeable) heads have a sort of “grabber,” perfect, I imagine, for pulling tough runners out from under shingles and facia boards. Such a tool saves hours of ladder work, but can cost about eighty dollars. I got mine from the A.M. Leonard tool catalogue (1-800-543-8955). The long reach pruner is only good for water sprouts and vines. It lacks cutting power for thicker or woodier branches. The only other tools required are loppers, hand pruners and holster. Occasionally you may need a pruning saw. Don’t forget the twine and nails or whatever you use.
THE MOST COMMON COMMENT I get at classes and at the PlantAmnesty educational booth is, “My wisteria won’t bloom.” It is natural for these vines to take between three and seven years to start blooming. I have read that frequent, proper pruning may help them to begin blooming sooner, or at least more. On the other hand, some people have old vines that have never bloomed. I am told that these are seed grown plants or “mules”. I have often heard root pruning recommended to force an older vine to bloom. Basically, this means that you use your shovel to cut the roots in a circle (or dotted circle) a foot or two from the vine. I have also heard people recommend fertilizer formulated to encourage blooms, (not heavy on nitrogen). However, I have been faced with such a vine and had no luck with either technique. In that case, as with all non-performers, removal is the best option, and no one will blame you for it.

No Leaves On My Wisteria Vine – What Causes A Wisteria With No Leaves

Many people love taking in the wonderful lilac colored blooms of wisteria vine each spring. But what happens when there are no leaves on wisteria vine? When wisteria does not have leaves, it is often thought to be a cause for alarm. However, this isn’t normally the case at all.

Reasons for Wisteria Not Leafing Out

Still Dormant

There are actually several reasons why wisteria does not have leaves. Most commonly this can be due to weather. Those having cooler than normal spring weather can often expect delays in trees and other plants, such as wisteria, leafing out.

So how do you know if your wisteria with no leaves is simply slow to start (dormant) or actually dying? Check for stem flexibility first. If the plant bends easily, it’s ok. Dead plant stems will snap and break off. Next, scrape off a little bark or break a small piece off. Green indicates health. Unfortunately, if it’s brown and dried out, the plant is most likely dead.

Poor Pruning

Occasionally, leafing out may be delayed due to poor pruning practices. While there’s nothing wrong with cutting out any dieback or unsightly growth, doing so at the wrong time may cause a delay in leafing.

On the other hand, doing this in spring could allow more light and warmth to reach the inner most branches, promoting regrowth. Plants that do not receive sufficient light have fewer leaves and slower growth. They will also be paler in color with leggy growth once it does emerge. If pruning has caused a delay, don’t worry too much as sprouting will eventually occur.

Wisteria Age

Newly planted tree wisteria may take longer to leaf out in spring. While some people may notice regrowth right away, others may not see any growth until later in the season, from June to late July. During this time you need only keep the soil somewhat moist. Be patient. Once they become established, the wisteria will begin to leaf out.

Wisteria Variety

Finally, the type of wisteria you have can affect when the leaves emerge. Perhaps you’ve noticed blooming of your wisteria but no leaves on wisteria vine. Again, this can be attributed to the variety. If you notice beautiful purple blooms prior to foliage growth, then you probably have a Chinese wisteria. This type forms flower buds on previous year’s wood. Therefore, it commonly blooms before the plant actually leafs out. Japanese wisteria blooms after the plant has sprouted leaves.

Meaning of the Wisteria flower

The Wisteria is a member of the pea family, Fabaceae (Leguminosae). It is a flowering plant and grows mostly in vine form, producing radiant fragrant flowers.

The flowers are of different colours ranging from blue, red-violet to lavender.

Origin of the Wisteria

The Wisteria has been around in China, Korea and Japan for over 2000years and arrived in the Eastern United States in the 1830s as ornamental plants. The first Wisteria was brought into Europe in 1816 by an English man. Apparently, he visited a rich Chinese dealer who had a pergola covered with flowering Wisteria and asked for some seedlings of the ’’blue vine’’ which he took back to England. In 1819, the plant bloomed for the first time and from there on spread to many gardens in the United States. It arrived in Italy around the year 1840.

The botanist Thomas Nuttall was said to have named the genus Wistaria, after a German anatomy and anthropologist professor named Dr Kaspar Wistar. Unfortunately, when pronounced with an English accent became Wisteria which was the name that stuck. Despite the acknowledgement of the mistake, the name remained Wisteria. It was originally called ’’Zi Ten’’ which means ’’blue vine’’ in China.

Classification of Wisteria

We have more than 20 species of this beautiful flower but the accepted Wisteria species and their descriptions are listed below:

  • Wisteria sinensis: It has shiny, green leaves with white, violet or blue flowers.
  • Wisteria floribunda: It has shiny dark-green leaves with a trail of clustered white, pink, violet, or blue flowers.
  • Wisteria frutescens: This variety is found in the Southern United States. It has shiny, dark-green leaves with a dense cluster of blue-purple flowers.
  • Wisteria macrostachya: This is similar to the Wisteria frutescens but has a different fragrance and grows differently.
  • Wisteria brachybotrys
  • Wisteria brevidentata
  • Wisteria venustra
  • Wisteria villosa

The Wisteria is of great traditional importance in some countries like Japan, Korea, China etc. There is a garden – The Kawachi Fuji Garden- in the city of Kitakyushu, Japan, that houses a stunning 150 Wisteria flowering plants of different species.

The Wisteria Flower Tunnel is the main attraction at the Kawachi Fuji Garden, as it allows visitors passage through a tunnel filled with a brightly lit coloured scenery of flowers. This garden is open to tourists to come experience the beauty of the Wisteria. A festival is also conducted here at the end of the “Golden Week” from April 27-29, when it is known for the Wisteria to bloom.

Symbolic meaning of the Wisteria

The Wisteria means different things to different people. If you have seen the wisteria plant when it has bloomed with all its radiant colours and fragrance emanating from its flowers, then you can relate to some of its symbolic meanings.

Ordinarily, from its lush beauty on a warm summer, the Wisteria gives a symbolic representation of beauty, fertility, love, creative expansion, long life and immortality, grace, bliss, honour, patience, endurance, longevity, exploration, releasing burdens, victory over hardships. Its appearance also gives the impression of harmony and peace to the onlooker.

The Wisteria is known to live for more than 100years and grows exponentially larger. Because of this broad lifespan and elegance, it is thought to be a symbol of wisdom. It is also said that the long climbing vines are metaphorically in search of new knowledge. Hence, it is also regarded as a symbol of wisdom, longevity, and endurance.

These are just elementary symbolic representations. The wisteria has a deeper history of symbolism in Chinese art, Japanese history, feng shui and also Buddhism.

Feng Shui symbolism

The Wisteria is known to blossom eloquently in tapered clusters. This is considered a visual indication of bowing or kneeling down in honour and respect in Feng Shui.

In fact, practitioners of the Feng Shui are required to plant Wisteria in the corner of their homes. This can be a source of encouragement for them during moments of doubt by instilling quiet honour.

The Japanese Interpretation

In the Kabuki drama “Fuji Musume” of the 1820s meaning “The Wisteria Lady”, a young woman waited for her lover under the wisteria vine. The Wisteria maiden is seen in a painting holding a wisteria branch until she falls deeply in love with a young man and steps out of the painting just so she could grasp his attention.

Unfortunately, her attempts were futile, her love was unreciprocated and she goes back into her painting dejected. This context juxtaposes the long-life, durability and resilience of the wisteria to the woman’s endurance in the face of heartache.

Wisteria symbolism in Buddhism

In Buddhism, the Jodo Shinshu Shin Buddist sect’s symbol has two conjoined wisteria racemes which represent humility to the sect.

The Wisteria is also a symbol of prayer to the Buddhist mind. It is from the idea that the growth of Wisteria forms a spiral pattern which is a mimic of a Buddhist’s symbol of prayer – a spiralling unfolding of the consciousness reaching out to the divine.

Wisteria symbolism in China

The Wisteria Is commonly referred to as “Purple Vine” in China. In a cluster, the petals are such that it shades from the strong, dark tip to the soft, light open base. It is thus said to symbolize playfulness and adventure.

The hanging blooms of the Wisteria recall the traditional purple sashes of top-ranking scholar-officials. Hence, it symbolizes social or professional success.

Victorian Interpretation

Looking at it from the Victorian language of flowers’ point of view, which literally says “I cling to thee” refers to the tight winding of its vine-like climbing habit. The wisteria is said to represent a warning against over-passionate love which is synonymous with the choking nature of the vines.

We must always keep in mind that the Wisteria is a voracious grower and can easily spread over a wide range of land. It can be destructive in its growth as it spirals out over large expanses, thus the need for consistent monitoring to avoid spiralling out of control. It has been reported to have taken down buildings with her burdening weight.

Symbolically, we can say it represents an external reflection of our expanding consciousness. It reminds us that the way we train our mind is essential to our own very becoming. If left unmonitored or practised without proper foundational knowledge may cause serious problems.

Wisteria colours

The Wisteria is one of the best ornamental vines stemming from the beauty of its drooping racemes forming a colourful curtain of scented flowers in spring and summer, its elegant foliage, its attractive trunks and twisted branches in winter and it radiant colours of different varieties.

Wisterias are available in a wide range of colours ranging from white, lavender-blue, lilac, pink, mauve, purple, lilac to rich pink. However, some Wisteria cultivars grow other colours such as pale pink, pale blue, deep violet, double deep violet, pale violet. The type of colour chosen depends on the occasion for which Wisteria is being used. For weddings white is selected, pink is to highlight feelings of love. Below is a list of Wisteria flower and their colours:

The Japanese Wisteria

It is heavenly scented and blooms around late spring or early summer to produce long drooping clusters with fragrant pea-like flowers. The flowers are a combination of pale lilac-blue and deep blue with a yellow spot in the throat. It is also characterized by dense foliage of bright green, pinnate leaves which turns golden-yellow in fall.

Silky Wisteria

It has a lovely scent and thick foliage with flowers of great beauty. It produces pea-like, pink and white flowers with a conspicuous yellow spot. It’s much more attractive feature is its dense foliage of fresh green, pinnate leaves. The Silky Wisteria flowers the first year of planting.

Wisteria floribunda – White Japanese Wisteria

This is a beautiful white Japanese Wisteria with long clusters of pea-like, fragrant white flowers. The flowers are followed by attractive, green bean-like pods, and dense foliage of light green, pinnate leaves which turn yellow in fall.

‘Pink Japanese’ Wisteria

It is noted for its exceptional fragrance and its clusters are characterized by pea-like, pale rose flowers tipped with purple, which blooms from the base of each cluster to the tip. It has dense foliage of dark green, pinnate leaves. It is the most romantic of all Wisterias and would surely make you have a second glance.

‘Royal Purple’ Japanese Wisteria

The Royal Purple is among the darkest purple Wisterias which produce sweetly scented, pea-like violet flowers. It blooms in late spring or early summer and gives rise to dense foliage of fresh green, pinnate leaves.

Wisteria Flower: Its Meanings & Symbolism

The pea family, Fabaceae, is full of purple blossoms ranging from tiny roadside weeds to massive trees. The wisteria is a member of this family that doubles as an attractive cut flower. As a symbol, the wisteria is also full of mystery and beauty. There’s even a water growing version of the plant with similar meanings and symbolism. You’ll certainly feel a deeper appreciation for this sweetly scented tree and vine flower once you learn more about what it means to cultures from around the world.

What Does the Wisteria Flower Mean?

Wisteria has been growing in the eastern US and Asia for centuries now, so it has accumulated plenty of contrasting and complementing meanings. Some people believe the wisteria symbolizes

  • Good luck, especially for the start of a business or a new marriage
  • Welcoming someone to a new town or home
  • Celebrating the youthful vitality of a young friend or child
  • Expressing your affections after meeting someone special for the first time
  • Serious devotion, whether it’s to a cause or another person
  • New births and spring birthdays

Wisteria isn’t a specific birth flower for any of the months, but many people associate it with March and April because it blooms during those months.

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