In the Deep South, spring smells like grape soda. Not name-brand grape soda, but the cheapest-of-all-cheap-store-brands grape soda. Or maybe it’s wonky year-old bubble gum, so powdery and bland nobody will even shoplift it off the Big Lots clearance rack.
Whatever confection it smells like, the smell means wisteria, or the Other Vine That Ate the South. (The original is kudzu, but that’s a different post or twelve.) In mid- to late April, wisteria begins its short, glorious blooming period and treats us to a couple weeks of smoky purple clouds in the trees. After that, it finishes leafing out to spend the rest of the season devouring everything in its path—fences, trees, houses, cars, pets.
People can say what they want about wisteria. I still look forward to its luxurious purples and lavenders draping the trees every spring. This is probably because I’m lucky enough not to have any on my property.
On my way home one day in March, I noticed a few drupes of wisteria blossoms here and there in the trees. “It’s only March 15,” I thought. “Naaah. It’s just the warm weather. They’ll get nipped back by a late frost in a couple days.”
The unusually warm weather persisted, and so did the wisteria. In this case, it’s wisteria sinensis, the particularly vigorous kind imported from China in the 1800s. Back then, unsuspecting gardeners planted it sometimes for erosion control, but mostly for its beautiful purple drupes.
It’s certainly breathtaking in the garden, but you have to tame it with yearly hard prunings. The majority of people don’t control their wisteria. Or maybe it’s more like can’t control it. I’m not sure.
Wisteria is highly invasive. Other than the fact that it provides food for honeybees, the Other Vine That Ate the South doesn’t have much going for it. What a shame.
If nobody’s around to keep wisteria sinensis in check, it takes over. For instance, let’s say you mean for people to forget about a place. All you need to do is follow these two simple steps:
- Plant wisteria.
Give it a few years, and voilà! Nobody will know the place ever existed.
These 60-foot-tall trees in LaGrange, Georgia, are suffocating under the tangles of Chinese wisteria. Some of the vines measure 3″ in diameter at the base. They’re at least 30 years old, by my guess, and maintain a vicious stranglehold on everything in their path.
In bloom, the vines are magnificent. But when spring passes, so do the drupes, and the foliage greens out completely and thickly. When summer arrives, we can’t even see between the trees for the thick cover of wisteria leaves.
As much as I love the Other Vine That Ate the South, it’s probably best that I leave it where I find it—as far away as possible from my own yard.
• • • • •
Originally published at Forgotten Plants & Places on 27 March 2012, “The Other Vine That Ate the South” appears here with revisions.