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Wisteria sinensis (Sims) Sw.

Modern name

Wisteria sinensis (Sims) Sweet


Glycine sinensis Sims; W. chinensis DC.; W. consequana Loud.

A strong-growing, deciduous climber, capable of covering lofty trees. The trunks of old specimens, although often decayed and hollow, attain great dimensions for a climber, and on some of the older plants in this country are over 5 ft in circumference. The branches, which are covered with silky down when young, support themselves by twining round whatever support is available. Leaves pinnate, 10 to 12 in. long, consisting usually of eleven leaflets, which are elliptical or ovate, deep rich green and glabrous above, somewhat hairy beneath, especially on the midrib, 112 to 4 in. long, 12 to 112 in. wide, increasing in size towards the end of the leaf. Racemes 8 to 12 in. long, produced in May from the buds of the previous season’s growth. Flowers mauve or lilac-coloured, borne singly on stalks 12 to 34 in. long, each flower about 1 in. long, pea-flower shaped, with a fine, rounded standard petal 34 in. wide. Pod rather like that of a kidney bean, 5 or 6 in. long, club-shaped, 34 in. wide towards the end, tapering gradually towards the base, covered with a velvety pile, and containing two or three seeds. Bot. Mag., t. 2083.

Native of Central China. It is probable that even now most plants of the true W. sinensis descend by vegetative propagation from one that grew at Canton in the garden of a Chinese merchant whose name was rendered by European residents as ‘Consequa’. He seems to have been a popular figure, and famous enough to be honoured by an obituary in The Times, when he died in 1833. The plant had been given to him by his nephew, who brought it from Changchow in Fukien province. John Reeves, Chief Inspector of Tea at Canton, is usually credited with its introduction, and this is true in the sense that he persuaded Consequa to propagate his plant. This he did, and two of the propagations reached Britain in May 1816. One was brought by Capt. Robert Welbank, commander of the EIC merchantman Cuffnels, who gave it to his brother-in-law C. H. Turner of Rooksnest Park, Godstone, Surrey, where it flowered in 1819. At that time it had already been propagated by the gardener McLeay, and plants were given by Turner to the nurseryman Loddiges and to the Horticultural Society. The other plant was brought by Capt. Richard Rawes of camellia fame, on the Warren Hastings; this was given to T. C. Palmer of Bromley in Kent, from whom the nurseryman Lee of Hammersmith received his stock. The retail price of the first plants to be sold was six guineas, an enormous sum for those days, but by 1835 it had dropped to a mere 1/6 to 2/6 a plant.

No climber ever brought to this country has added more to the beauty of gardens. It flowers towards the end of May, and there is frequently a second smaller crop in August. It is as remarkable for its rapid growth as for its wealth of blossom. Where wall space is available, it will extend forty yards or more from each side of the stem. In full blossom, when every twig is garnished with pale lilac flowers, few plants are so lovely. It may be used in several ways; the commonest is as a wall plant on houses, also as a pergola plant, and for covering arches. At Kew, an old specimen which up to 1860 grew on a house there, was trained over a large iron cage erected for it when the house was demolished; it was old then, but is still a fine feature. On the continent, especially in Italy, it is frequently planted so as to overrun large trees; in such a way it makes gorgeous displays there in April. When the plant has filled its destined space, it becomes necessary to prune the long, slender shoots back to within an inch or two of the older wood; otherwise it soon becomes an inextricable tangle. This is done in late summer. This wisteria may also be treated as a shrub, 5 to 8 ft high, by an annual hard pruning. Seed is only ripened in unusually hot years.

cv. ‘Alba’. – Flowers white. Introduced by Fortune for the Horticultural Society in 1846. (W. sinensis alba Lindl.). The wisteria once known in gardens as “W. alba plena” is W. venusta.

cv. ‘Prolific’. – Near to the common form, but even freer in flower and with a longer, more pointed truss. It was probably selected by P. J. C. Oosthoek and Co. of Boskoop, Holland, and distributed by the firm’s successor W. J. Hooftman and by other Dutch nurseries (H. J. Grootendorst, Dendroflora, No. 5 (1968), pp. 63-4). It is in the British trade as ‘Oosthoek’s Variety’.

There seem to have been very few reintroductions of W. sinensis since it first reached Europe. Wilson knew of only one plant not of the Consequa provenance; this had been raised at the Arnold Arboretum from seeds received from Shanghai in 1887. He himself saw the species growing wild in W. Hupeh, but did not collect seeds. Yet inferior forms have been distributed. On the continent W. sinensis sets seed fairly frequently, and though it is unlikely that any reputable nurseryman ever relied on this means of propagation it may be that inferior seedlings have inadvertently been used as stock plants. An accusing finger has also been pointed at Japanese nurserymen. These rogue plants, some of which may be hybrids, either do not flower, or do so when the leaves are already fully expanded.

From the Supplement (Vol. V)

Two recently introduced cultivars are: ‘Black Dragon’, with semi-double, dark purplish blue flowers; and ‘Caroline’, with deep blue-purple, very fragrant flowers.



Other species in the genus