Wisteria: It’s a beauty AND a beast if you choose the wrong one

I opened up my car window the other day and was cradled by the beautiful smells of early April in South Carolina, courtesy of the forest of purple wisteria blooms. These plants light up the forest each spring as they reach into the tops of even the tallest trees. That’s part of the problem. The most common wisteria species in the southeast actually don’t even belong here and are choking off our beautiful native plants in the process.

Non-Native Wisteria

Japanese and Chinese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda & Wisteria sinensis) aren’t native to the southern states, but they’re iconic and are all over the place. That’s probably not by choice, because these vines are impossible to get rid of. The vines produce a thicket of roots and offshoots all around them choking plants that grow underneath and eventually toppling all but the strongest trees. Not exactly what a home gardener has in mind for perfect pergola plant! They also only bloom 2-3 weeks a year. The blooms are here for a good time, not a long time as I like to say! Unfortunately the vines are here to stay.

Wisteria trees, are just Japanese or Chinese wisteria vines that have been trained to stand upright overtime and come with all the same problems. These trees are a constant maintenance project because the plants grow out of control so quickly, offshoots readily pop up around the mother plant, and birds eat wisteria seeds and drop them in other parts of the yard or in nearby forests.

Native Wisteria

Fortunately, there’s an alternative that’s better. Let me introduce our beautiful native wisteria, Wisteria frutescens! I planted one for my parents in New York City sold as “Wisteria frutescens ‘Amethyst Falls'”. Let me say, it was instant gratification because it’s better than our non-native wisteria in so many ways. American Wisteria still produces the beautiful chandeliers of blooms (I’ll admit the blooms are smaller and the fragrance is more subtle, but the look is similar!). Unlike Japanese or Chinese wisteria, American wisteria are the perfect size for a garden arbor or pergola and bloom at a younger age. The most exciting part is American Wisteria will occasionally re-bloom in the summer!

I’ve had only positive experiences with Wisteria frutescens and highly recommend it to anyone interested in growing wisteria. Some internet gardeners claim American Wisteria is slow growing, but that has not been my experience at all. My parent’s vines grow about 4-6 feet each season which is the perfect speed to carefully train the vine to grow the way you want. The American Wisteria I planted for them will completely cover the pergola about 4 years after I planted it which seems very reasonable to me.

Another thing I love is how well this vine cooperates with other nearby plants. I planted a Passiflora caerulea with the Wisteria frutescens and they’re practically best friends. When one plant stops blooming, the other starts and the star shaped leaves on the Passiflora blend pretty nicely with the Wisteria. Passiflora incarnata would have been a better choice to keep everything native, but I haven’t had as much luck with incarnata in my parent’s yard.

Next time you see a plant you love, start digging for native alternatives. Sometimes you’ll find a plant that’s even better than the one on your wish list proving you don’t have to sacrifice creativity just because you’re planting native!

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