The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - KATHY RENWALD Wis­te­ria

Wis­te­ria hys­te­ria is in the air.

All around Hamilton, it’s bloom­ing like it’s the end of the world. Next door at my neigh­bours’ it blooms on top of a trel­lis so strong, you could land a jet fighter on it. Every sin­gle shoot seems to have a flower on it, per­fum­ing the air, and ro­manc­ing the bees.

The wis­te­ria climbs three storeys from the ground to the top, twist­ing around wire and bend­ing the metal frame­work to its will. Those lit­tle shoots, thin as spaghetti, turn into tree trunks with the pas­sage of time.

At Ol­wyne Mit­ton’s gar­den the wis­te­ria drapes over an ar­bour, rain­ing petals like huge snowflakes. It’s an op­por­tunis­tic vine she keeps in check by force­ful prun­ing, slash­ing it back by a third each year.

Wis­te­ria is hardy through a big range of tem­per­a­tures, from zones 4 through 9.

Here in Hamilton we are in Zone 6, so wis­te­ria should be a slam­dunk to grow. It is, sort of. The vine will grow, and the leaves will form a thicket, but it can take its time bloom­ing. You may have flow­ers on day one, or at the 10-year mark, or never.

The late Chris Gra­ham, head of hor­ti­cul­ture for the Royal Botan­i­cal Gardens, was asked over and over, “When will my wis­te­ria bloom?” His an­swer al­ways was, “In seven years.”

Once wis­te­ria is planted and the roots es­tab­lished, it is fool­ish to be too kind to it. Ex­cept in a desert, it doesn’t need wa­ter­ing — and don’t think ag­gres­sive fer­til­iz­ing will prompt it to blos­som; it will just pro­duce more leaves.

Prun­ing is the key to flower power. Look around at the wis­te­rias in the city, and the ones pro­duc­ing the most flow­ers are un­der con­trol. A few thick stems rise from the ground and then branch out to a hor­i­zon­tal frame­work with cas­cades of pur­ple blooms.

Prop­erly con­trolled, it does not grow willy-nilly with shoots flop­ping around on the ground and stran­gling, slow-mov­ing crea­tures in its path. Coaxed with skill and com­mit­ment, wis­te­ria looks fab­u­lous fram­ing a porch or trained as a tree, which is how I of­ten see it in the North End.

A sim­pli­fied guide for its care would in­clude a vig­or­ous prun­ing in late win­ter and then, once the wis­te­ria is fin­ished bloom­ing in spring, con­tin­ued light prun­ing in the sum­mer to con­trol stray growth. It is worth re­search­ing on­line for more in-depth ad­vice, in­clud­ing how to iden­tify flower buds and the spurs that pro­duce the most flow­ers.

When shop­ping for wis­te­ria, try to find one that’s in bloom in the pot. If it has bloomed once, chances are it will bloom again. A Ja­panese wis­te­ria called Lawrence was bred in Canada, so that would be a good choice if you can find it in a gar­den cen­tre.

Both Chi­nese and Ja­panese wis­te­ria are sold here and both are fra­grant, though there are dif­fer­ences in the size of the flow­ers and the way they spi­ral. The Chi­nese ones twist clock­wise and the Ja­panese, counter-clock­wise.

In warmer cli­mates, es­caped wis­te­ria vines pose a threat when their vig­or­ous growth gir­dles and kills trees.

Here in the colder zones, wis­te­ria’s strong­man tac­tics can pull over flimsy sup­ports, or it can lift up sid­ing and eave­stroughs with its ag­gres­sive growth. But let’s fo­cus on the soft side of wis­te­ria. Alex Hen­der­son, cu­ra­tor of col­lec­tions at the RBG, says the cool weather this spring has favoured the mas­sive blooms.

“In gen­eral it seems to have been a good year for many spring flow­er­ing plants. The Ja­panese flow­er­ing cher­ries, for ex­am­ple, had a vin­tage year — as are the lilacs. And as re­gards lilacs, not only are they flow­er­ing pro­fusely but it’s also a vin­tage year for fra­grance. It seems to me that cool springs are ben­e­fi­cial in pro­duc­ing bet­ter flow­ers, which is why your wis­te­ria may also be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a vin­tage year.” Wis­te­ria is an as­ton­ish­ing sight in bloom. Just re­mem­ber that it’s a beau­ti­ful brute.


This wis­te­ria is pruned back by a third each year by owner Ol­wyne Mit­ton.

Wis­te­ria can be re­luc­tant bloomers, tak­ing years to flower for the first time.


Wis­te­ria can be re­luc­tant bloomers, tak­ing years to flower for the first time.

Wis­te­ria vines can grow as thick as tree trunks over time.

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