The Wisteria That Wouldn’t Give Up
by Pat Welsh '51
Among all vines, one in particular has wound itself most prominently into my heart, my garden, and my life. That vine is the wisteria.
When I was eighteen years old, I was captivated by a purple wisteria. It was because of this particular wisteria that I coveted a secondstory room on a southeast corner of my college dorm. The room had its drawbacks. It faced south so it was hot in summer; it was at the head of the stairs, so it was often noisy, but like many people with glaring flaws in their characters, it also had great charm. Its chief boast was a pair of French doors that could be flung open wide onto a private balcony. Below the balcony was a quiet and secluded patio in which grew a venerable wisteria. This wisteria had climbed a drain pipe, then a beam, stretched along a section of red tile roof, caught hold of the corner of the balcony, and twined all over its wrought-iron railings.
The first time I saw that wisteria burst into bloom was in April of my freshman year at Scripps. I stood on the patio below the blossom-covered balcony, delirious with spring and drunk with the heady perfume of cascading purple blooms. I put my name in for the room at the head of the stairs so when I became an upper classman it would be mine.
The story continues two years later, as Pat begins her junior year at Scripps:
I returned to Scripps College with renewed energy and ran upstairs to see my new room. But when I threw open the French doors, my eyes fell on a bare balcony.
They had chopped down my wisteria! Every last sinew of that lovely vine had been stripped away, and the ground where it once grew was now paved over. I hunted for the gardeners, though they could hardly conjure a mammoth old vine back to life. The reason for cutting the vine was simple: It had broken the tiles, and the roof was leaking.
Is it any wonder that when Lou and I built our home in Del Mar thirty-eight years ago, the first vine I yearned to plant was a wisteria? But I certainly didn’t want to have a problem with our roof, so several years passed before I found the right spot.
I went to McPherson’s Nursery in Encinitas and asked for a purple wisteria.
I took a purple one on faith, and never even asked if it was the Chinese or the Japanese species. Nor did I ask for a good variety that was grafted or grown from a cutting, instead of from a seed. Like most people who buy plants, I didn’t know what I was doing: I just plunged in. Most people, for example, don’t know that Chinese wisterias (Wisteria sinensis) bloom all at once, giving a spectacular show on bare wood before the leaves emerge. By contrast, the blossoms of Japanese wisterias (Wisteria floribunda) open at the same time that the leaves are emerging and then the individual flowers open slowly from top to bottom.
Despite the mistakes I made when I planted my first wisteria, it seemed happy at first and grasped life with eager tendrils. It grew so rapidly that I was kept busy that first summer training it on wires in the gap between the house and the lath. For the first two years it didn’t bloom, and I was quite disgusted. Then when the wisteria was three years old, it finally covered itself with fat flower buds. At last! I thought, but when they opened, what a disappointment. The flowers weren’t purple; they were white. I told myself that white flowers are always lovely and more sophisticated than brilliantly colorful ones. Vita Sackville- West had said so; who was I to disagree? But my heart was set on purple like the vine they’d cut down at Scripps. My white wisteria was a Japanese variety with long narrow racemes, and its flowers were unusually fragile. Shortly after they opened, we had a heavy wind and rain, and most of them shattered.
By the following year the enterprising vine had grown from one end of the patio to the other. That spring we had some warm weather, and the fringe-like flowers came out all at once in a massive display under a lacy covering of light green leaves. When the blossoms were at the height of bloom, a friend happened to drop by. She stepped through the gate into the patio and gasped.
“Oh, Pat, I’ve never seen a more beautiful wisteria!”
“Yes,” I agreed. “It is beautiful, but it’s white. I wish it were purple.”
Almost right away the blossoms began to wilt, and the very next day they fell off. No sooner had the blossoms fallen than the leaves began to turn yellow. Within a week they had fallen too. The vine shriveled and died to the ground. Bad drainage or not, I knew I’d killed it with a cruel word.
I didn’t have the heart to try growing another wisteria, so I sawed off the trunk at ground level and planted annual flowers next to where it had grown. About six years later, Raymundo, my trusty helper, started working for me one day a week, as he still does today. I asked him to dig up the woody stump of the old wisteria and all the dead roots that had been too difficult for me to remove. He did his usual thorough job, and several years went by. Then one day a friend asked me if I ever talked to my plants.
“I don’t think I actually talk aloud to them, but I do communicate with them mentally. Sometimes I hug trees. Also,” I added ruefully, “I once killed a white wisteria with a cruel word. It grew right over here outside Wendy’s window. I still feel very sorry that I criticized it.”
Well, would you believe that a day or two later a tiny green sprout popped up? It took off like a rocket, grew straight up and wound around a beam. The next spring, Wendy, now in her teens, came dashing into the kitchen. “Mother!” she cried, “A miracle! The wisteria is blooming and it’s PURPLE!”
That wisteria is still alive today. Some people to whom I tell this story don’t believe it, but there is an explanation. All white varieties of wisteria are grafted onto purple rootstocks, which are more vigorous. So, it is my belief that although the white—or grafted—portions of my plant died along with most of the roots, a tiny piece of the original purple rootstock must have survived. When I said I was sorry, perhaps I gave it the energy to grow.
Excerpted from All My Edens, a Gardener’s Memoir, by Pat Welsh, Chronicle Books, 1996.
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