#97 Wisteria



Wisteria at Monk’s House: May 2013


            There are ten species of woody, deciduous vines in the genus of Wisteria, a member of the pea-flower family, Fabaceae. Native to China, Japan and the southern United States, the plants generally are known for twining around other trees or pergolas and various garden structures built to support them, although if carefully pruned they can be “standardized” or made into small trees.  All are fragrant, but the Japanese variety W. floribunda has perhaps the strongest scent.[1] Mostly mauve in color with slight traces of yellow at their centers, the flowers grow in long graceful racemes, hanging down like dripping fountains in the early spring (Hogan 1468) The individual flowers have the same structure as sweet peas: their five petals are arranged with one broad standard petal in the center, flanked by two wing petals, all sitting above a keel made up of two joined petals.


As Peter Valder points out in his comprehensive guide to their history and classification, wisteria are hardy, going into a dormant state during the winter when they are not harmed by freezing temperatures (24). Once comfortably situated, they grow for a very long time, attaining enormous size and sometimes causing the collapse of their supports.  Within twenty years of its first bloom, the specimen at the Horticultural Society’s garden at Chiswick had grown to 180 feet long (Valder 44).


Wisteria at Kew 2003, photo by Syd Cross


Wisteria are quite ancient plants. Fossil examples have been found in China dating back to the Miocence, 2-26 million years ago.  Although Hobhouse notes that the first wisteria was imported from China (W. sinesis) to France in 1687 where it was grown in the royal gardens of Louis XIV (172), more common in England was the American variety, W. frutescens, first introduced from the Carolinas in 1724 (Valder 16, 31).  Originally called the “Carolina kidney bean” because of its characteristic long pods, it was named after Dr. Caspar Wistar, botanist and medical professor at the University of Pennsylvania (Ward 381), and was for a short time at the end of the nineteenth century known as “wistaria,” spelled with an "a," especially in early translations of Japanese literature such as The Tales of the Genji and a collection of poetry excerpts, The Japanese Floral Calendar by Ernest Clement, published in 1911 (Ward 382)[2].  There is a persistent story that the namer, Thomas Nutall, made a spelling mistake when writing the official description of the plant, so since 1906 “wisteria” spelled with an e, has been its accepted name (Valder 16). The third well-known early species, W. floribunda from Japan, was smuggled into Holland in 1856, just before Japan was opened to commerce in 1858, but at first failed to bloom (Valder 77). However, its particularly prolific flowers and strong scent soon made it a popular choice as well as the scion for many contemporary hybrids (see Harris op cit).


Wisteria became particularly popular in England in the late Victorian and Edwardian period.  Even though they were far from indigenous, their winter hardiness, scent, and spring beauty made them favorites of garden designers such as William Robinson who, according to a nice history of wisteria in England published on-line by the Gardens Trust, praised them as early as his 1872 volume The Garden as “among our most common and valued climbers.”[3]  Mrs. C.W. Earle, whose Potpourri from a Surrey Garden Woolf had read in July of 1897 (PA 118), recommends training “wistaria” over wooden posts to form a pergola so one can admire the effect of “its beautiful lilac blooms hanging from the bare and twisted branches above your head and the blue sky behind them” (42-3; also quoted by Ward 283). Citing Robinson as an authority, Vita Sackville-West suggests training them to climb into older trees that might otherwise be chopped down (Garden Book 104-5).



        Woolf mentions wisteria six times, twice in an early diary entry and four times in her fiction, almost always using the old-fashioned spelling “wistaria” and always evoking the plant in the context of Italy, specifically the city of Florence. Her first and only reference to “wisteria” occurs in her account of her Italian travels in 1909.  Remarking that “Florence seems to me a very happy place. The poorest mother might let her children play amongst long grass & wisteria blossoms,” she goes on to describe the flowers in terms that recall the imagery of Mrs. C. W. Earle: “The wisterias are in bloom  -- strange pale garlands, hanging against green leaves & blue sky” (PA 396).


         The most vivid appearance of the flowering vine occurs in the 1918 short story, “The Evening Party” set in the back garden of a city house, where “little burning roses” climbing on a wall remind the speaker of “the fireflies we’ve seen together in Florence, sprinkled in the wistaria, floating atoms of fire, burning as they float—burning, not thinking” (CSS 97).  The striking image of the illuminated wisteria is elaborated a few sentences later when Woolf, in one of her dramatic shifts of perspective, plunges the narrator both back in her memory and into the center of the flower as if she was an erotically pollinating bee: “But see how the great blossoms hang before us; vast chandeliers of gold and dim purple pendant from the skies. Don’t you feel the fine gilt painting our thighs as we enter, and how the slate coloured walls flap clammily about us as we dart deeper and deeper into the petals, or grow taut like drums?” (CSS 97)


            When, some fifteen years later, wisteria appears in Woolf’s comic canine biography Flush  (1933), it is again growing in Florence in Italy, where the floral profusion is a signal of the spaniel’s new independence: “The wistarias and the laburnum were flowering over walls; the Judas trees were burning bright in the gardens; the wild tulips were sprinkled in the fields. Why should he wait? Off he ran by himself. He was his own master now” (118).  The mix of wisteria and laburnum again emphasizes a color scheme of purple and yellow, and the fact that Flush’s independent adventures are almost immediately described as sexual reiterates the erotic charge of entering the wisteria’s caverns in “The Evening Party.” Both of these instances transform her first recorded impression of the flowers not only by complicating the innocence of mother and child interaction but also by shifting the color contrast from blue sky to yellow flowers.


    Written in 1937, the short sketch “Portrait 7,” like Flush, contains a sighting of wisteria in Florence, once again coupled with the Judas Tree, a Mediterranean variety of redbud with pinkish-mauve flowers (see https://woolfherbarium.blogspot.com/p/blog-page_17.html ).  Here Woolf creates a character with a spiritual love of beauty that makes them feel displaced in England. Claiming to have known Vernon Lee, the essayist and art critic with a Paterian bent about whom Woolf wrote two early reviews,[4] the speaker recalls Lee’s home in Florence: “One of those villas hung with wistaria—something like our lilac, but better—and Judas trees” (CSS 245). Woolf had been introduced to Lee by Violet Dickinson during an Easter visit to Italy in 1904 (L3 283; Reid 67), and so this sketch confirms the origin of Woolf’s consistent association of wisteria with the Italian city.[5] The speaker’s memory of Florence creates a dissatisfaction with their current life situation, and they ask mournfully: “Oh why does one live in Kensington? Why not in Italy?” (CSS 245). The recollection of meeting a Russian Prince at a party in Florence invokes the memory of wisteria at the "Evening Party" (set in a location that might plausibly be in Kensington), recalling  a similar nostalgia. Fortunately, a year later, in 1938, Leonard  recorded ordering  wisteria for the garden at Monk’s House in his Garden Account Book, bringing their beauty home for Virginia.




[1] See the helpful entry on Wisteria written by Stephen Harris in “Oxford Plants 400,” a site describing 400 plants in the Oxford Botanical Gardens:  https://herbaria.plants.ox.ac.uk/bol/plants400/Profiles/WX/Wisteria Accessed December 24, 2022.


[2] Woolf wrote a review of Arthur Waley’s translation of The Tales of Genji in June of 1925 (see D3, 30-1, n. 16). The Tales include a character named Princess Wistaria (Ward 282).



[4] Woolf’s reviews of books by Vernon Lee were written in 1908 and 1909 (E1 157-9; E1 277-80).  In 1926, the Hogarth Press published Vernon Lee’s essay The Poet’s Eye.  In her article about Woolf and Lee’s shared shared suspicion of patriotism as a cause of war, Mary Jean Corbett mentions that Woolf met Lee four times, the last being in 1920 when Lee was in London (20).


[5] While there is no erotic charge in this last reference to wisteria, the fact that Vernon Lee was a sapphist who typically dressed in male clothing may be a hidden clue to why the speaker so longs for their former life in Italy.

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...