A while ago I wrote about mayapples. In almost every stage of growth the plant is completely poisonous. Only the ripe fruit is edible. A similar example of that phenomenon is Wisteria, which is blooms in the spring.
Wisteria is that woody vine with clusters of purple flowers. It climbs and tears down trees, fences and just about everything else that gets in its way. It doesn’t grow as fast as kudzu but it’s heavier, much more like grapevine. Cut them down and they’ll grow back like gangbusters. Deer and rabbits won’t even eat the sprouts.
Most wisteria is either part of existing landscaping or has escaped cultivation. It’s somewhat similar to English ivy or passion vine in that people who don’t have it think it’s gorgeous, but those blessed with it wish it were less aggressive. It can take over a landscape. Three species are common, but be they Chinese (Wisteria sinensis), Japanese (Wisteria floribunda) or our native species the American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens), they are all invasive. Some people give a pass to the native species, but it will dominate and spread as well. Training them into a standard tree form is possible, but it requires frequent pruning to achieve the desired effect. When left alone even the grafted tree types will sprawl all over everything.
I don’t mean to badmouth this traditional landscape favorite. Wisteria has a few redeeming features. Its color is spectacular and the blooms have a sweet aroma. It’s enjoyable to stroll around the neighborhood when they’re blooming.
Wisteria tolerates a wide range of growing conditions. They thrive in almost any light regime, but flower better when given adequate sunlight. Plants tolerate a wide variety of soil types and require little maintenance. They only need something to climb on.
Animals leave them alone, and summer heat doesn’t bother them. Wisterias lose their leaves in fall but form a dense privacy barrier for summer. They also suffer few problems with diseases and insects. These showy vines only bloom for a few weeks but during that time they are heavenly.
Those lovely purple flowers are quite tasty, too. They make great tea and are also delectable in a salad. Another creative use is to chop up some flowers and fold them into pancake batter. Some even use them to flavor ice cream.
I can’t really describe the flavor. Honey is about as close as I can come. They don’t really taste like berries or another type of fruit. As a drink I prefer them steeped cold rather than hot, much like sumac, which I discussed a couple years ago. The flavor is much more delicate when extracted cold.
Pick a bunch of flowers and remove all the stems. Remember, all other parts of the plant are toxic. Only the flowers are edible. Place them in a pitcher of cool water and refrigerate overnight. In the morning your wisteria concoction is ready to drink. Strain, pour over ice and enjoy.
If you are not so inclined, wisteria can be controlled by many common herbicides. I think the best method is to cut the stumps near the ground and treat immediately with a strong solution of glyphosate. Triclopyr and Imazapyr work good too. I don’t recommend spraying the foliage as other desirable plants could be damaged.
Wisteria is an aggressive vine and can harm trees, fences and buildings. It’s wonderful if kept where it belongs, but with many vines that can be the tricky part.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.