By Nancy Covert
If April showers bring May flowers—then what do May flowers bring? In this case the answer is: dancers!
That rhetorical question conjures memories of one long-ago spring event when groups high school classmates planned raiding parties of neighborhood gardens—of course the garden owners sanctioned the ‘raids’. After all, there was a benign purpose to them: To acquire the freshest possible blooms to decorate the school gymnasium for the school’s annual May Ball.
And so, late one Friday afternoon, members of the dance decorating committee began draping peonies, mountain laurel (a close cousin of the rhododendron), blossoms from fruit trees and, wisteria, around the room. Soon the fragrant flowers masked the pervasive aroma of gym socks.
The recollection of that long-ago dance returns even half a century after that occasion—it’s fleeting, but the tantalizing scent of wisteria still has the ability to conjure up that memory.
Beginning in late April and continuing through early May, I make a point to return often for a leisurely stroll through Lakewood’s premiere garden at Lakewold, a 10-acre garden located on Gravelly Lake. The garden’s design is due to the collaboration of Eulalie Wagner and Thomas Church, a renowned landscape gardener of his time. The garden is a popular destination for many.
But, a garden such as this is especially enjoyable when there aren’t hordes of visitors with whom to compete while strolling along the graveled pathways. Like most well planned formal gardens—there’s always something in bloom no matter the season, beginning with primroses, followed by daffodils, tulips, flowering fruit trees—culminating with the early May almost overpowering grandeur of rhododendrons.
Aside from the stroll along the patterned brick pathway to the mammoth gazebo at its terminus, or following the graveled route that meanders over the landscape to a hidden dell, complete with waterfalls and translucent shade trees, the verandah, outside the main house, is especially meaningful.
For more than half a century sturdy stalks of wisteria have twisted their woody tendrils around upright metal bars, spreading their feathery green leaves over the glass-topped roof. The highlight of the season was a few weeks later, when patience was rewarded and garden goers are treated to a view of the chandelier-like blossoms dangling between the beams shading the dining table and chairs arranged on the patio.
Wisteria (also spelled Wistaria), according to the Internet, is a genus of flowering plants in the pea family, Fabaceae. It contains about ten species of woody climbing vines native to Japan, Korea, China and the eastern United States. Aquarists refer to the species Hygrophila difformis in the family Acanthaceae, as Water Wisteria.
Wisteria vines climb by twining their stems either clockwise or counter-clockwise around any available support. They can climb as high as 20 m above ground and spread out 10 m laterally. The world’s largest known Wisteria vine is located in Sierra Madre, Calif., where it’s said to measure more than one acre in size and weigh 250 tons.
Wisteria leaves are alternate, 15 to 35 cm long, pinnate, with 9 to 19 leaflets. The flowers are produced in pendulous racemes,10 to 80 cm long, similar to those of the genus Laburnum, but are purple, violet, pink or white; not yellow. Flowering is in the spring (just before or as the leaves open) in some Asian species, and in mid to late summer in the American species and W. japonica. The flowers of some species are fragrant, most notably Chinese Wisteria. The seeds are produced in pods similar to those of the Laburnum, and, like that genus, are poisonous.
There are two noted attributions for the name Wisteria. One, that the botanist Thomas Nuttall named the genus Wisteria in honour of Dr. Caspar Wister (1761 – 1818) — some call it Wistaria, but the misspelling is conserved under theInternational Code of Botanical Nomenclature. The other, that the genus was named after Charles Jones Wister, Sr., of Grumblethorpe, the grandson of merchant and wine importerJohn Wister. Daniel Wister, Charles’s father, joined with Samuel Miles and Robert Morris to underwrite the voyage of the American commercial vesselEmpress of China. Onboard the ship was the vine that would later bear the Wister name.
Wisteria species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including brown-tail. It also is an extremely popular ornament in Japan and China.
Although the Wisteria’s season is shortlived, the leafy vines form a cool canopy over the verandah. Tiny lights are interwoven around the wisteria, creating a “fairy-tale-like” atmosphere in the evening, particularly noticeable during the summer evening concerts when the verandah serves as an outdoor stage.
Visit Lakewold’s website: www.lakewoldgardens.org or phone 253-584-4106 for more information about garden hours, admission prices and special events.