Wisteria or Wistaria? A visit to the 119 year old “largest blossoming plant in the world.”

Well, another busy weekend.  I may have overdone it, but I’m lying low today with a time out for refueling.

Fortunately, my energy reserves didn’t run out before we enjoyed the Sierra Madre Wistaria Festival, where we gasped in delight at the sight of one of the seven horticultural wonders of the world.

No, not this guy! He was just a bonus for us. This Sulcata, probably ten years older than our Darwin, must have wanted his share of attention and escaped from the home across the street. He was wedged under the bumper of the car. From what we could see of his size, the question is, What are we in for?

But on to the vine!

The original root...

The original root…

In 1894, Alice Brugman rode by horse and buggy to the R.H. Wilson Pioneer Nursery in nearby Monrovia, purchasing a gallon can of Wistaria for $.75. It was the Chinese variety (Wisteria sinensis), originating from seeds brought from China by Marco Polo in the 13th century.

Mrs. Brugman sold the home in 1906, and the new owners, Henry and Estelle Fennell, took an avid interest in the vine’s health. Mr. Fennell’s keen interest in horticulture probably contributed to the incredible growth. Arbors and trellises protected the terminal buds from dying due to added weight, and in combination with good drainage from the terraced location, it grew until its weight finally destroyed the original home, collapsing the roof.

Carrie Ida Lawless purchased the vine property in 1936, spending a small fortune, $100,000, to enhance the grounds and take care of the vine, which by then showed signs of distress. When she died in 1942, she left a financial legacy to her heir, nephew Bruce McGill, to continue to care for the property with a committee headed by the Garden Club.

The Guinness Book of World Records named the vine the World’s Largest Flowering Plant. At its height of bloom it has an estimated 1.5 million blossoms with 40 blossoms per square foot, weighing 250 tons with branches extending 500 feet. The original property was subdivided long ago and the vine is now maintained on two directly adjoining properties, covering one full acre.

Plants cultivated in China can live for 250 years and this Sierra Madre wonder is maintained by experts from a variety of universities and local horticulturists assisting in proper pruning,  hormone and Vitamin B treatments, and computerized record keeping.

Wistaria Canopy with crowd

The vine has drawn crowds of admirers for decades. At one time Easter sunrise services were among the activities and when blooming, additional  street cars were necessary as people came from all over the world just to see this amazing beauty.

Norman Rockwell and Mary Pickford were known to have an interest in the vine, once helping select the festival’s Wistaria Queen.

It’s impossible to showcase the vine in its entirety. And I can’t give you even a slight hint at the overwhelming fragrance of the wistaria blossoms. Heavenly!

Hanging wistaria blossoms

The wistaria vine has been named one of the seven horticultural wonders of the world, sharing honors with the gardens of Buckingham Palace, the California Sequoia National Park redwood forests, Brazil’s Amazon tropical jungle, India’s Taj Mahal gardens, Japan’s Yokohama rock gardens, and Mexico’s Xochimilco floating gardens.

Now that was a surprise!

close up of wistaria flower

And what about the spelling?

The Sunset Western Garden Book lists the spelling as wisteria. However, Sierra Madre has always spelled it wistaria. 

Experts at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden maintain the plant was named to honor Caspar Wistar (1761-1818), an American physician and teacher from the University of Pennsylvania responsible for writing the first anatomy textbook.

When the name of the genus Wisteria was put into the book it was incorrectly transcribed.

The spelling is of little importance when standing under the canopy in awe of the visual beauty and stunning fragrance. If you plan a trip to Southern California you might want to consider coordinating with the annual Sierra Madre Wistaria Festival.

I’m so tempted to go out and purchase a wistaria vine, but after seeing what it might entail for future generations, I’m concerned. I’m already leaving my descendants a Sulcata Tortoise of impending weight and responsibility. I’d better be careful.

62 thoughts on “Wisteria or Wistaria? A visit to the 119 year old “largest blossoming plant in the world.”

  1. Very interesting, and such beautiful photos. The beautiful wisteria fragrance practically wafted out of the computer! It’s so interesting that the common spelling of wisteria with the “e” instead of the “a” is all due to an incorrect transcription. I’m sure there are many other such now-accepted errors.

    • I’ve wondered, too, about how names and spelling have probably been transcribed incorrectly many times! And then at times even common usage changes the way we pass information along. The fragrance was amazing. We sat there for the longest time just enjoying it, and “pretending” this was our yard! :-)

  2. Looks gorgeous! My parents had a rather large (but not this large!) vine that completely covered an arbor over a large patio. Then it grew into a big apple tree. There was nothing more wonderful than to stand under it and take in the perfume. Unfortunately, after she sold the house, the new owners ripped it out. They are work to keep contained even in our harsh winters here. Thanks for the memories!

    • I’m beginning to really understand how much work the wistaria vine is, Kate. But for those who love them in their yards, it is a special relationship. I often wonder how it feels to baby a plant and take such care to see it do well, and then to have someone come along who doesn’t want to be bothered. People move so frequently I’m sure this happens all the time, but it makes me feel a little sad. Your family home sounds like it had a lovely backyard. The fragrance must have been very lovely. This particular vine is something very rare, I’m sure, and benefits from having a whole team of people watching out for its health! I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Kate. Thank you!

    • I just freed you from my Spam box, Claire! What were you doing in there? lOL! I’m glad I checked. Two of your past comments were hiding in there. But this wistaria was indeed wondrous! I wish I could have had access to a photo from above the grounds so that I could give perspective. It was hard to take a photo of something snaking along so much of the perimeter. And the fragrance was indeed heavenly! :-)

    • Didn’t you say you had family in Seal Beach, Natalie? The festival is over for this year, but I’ll try to remember to remind you next time and maybe they’d be up for a short drive. And even better, you can come out for a visit! :-)

  3. I’m actually taking time over lunch and enjoying your article! The subliminal fragrance is also coming through! Love it! Thanks for sharing.

  4. I got to see the Sierra Madre wistaria vine blooming one year not long before I left CA. We have wistaria up here in WA but nothing like that one! However, I think our trees on the whole are bigger than yours…. :-)

    • I’ve heard of the vine for years and years, Lori, but this was my first time to go visit. I did go one year and couldn’t park because of the huge crowd! LOL! It’s amazing, isn’t it? I tend to agree with those that theorize the elaborate train of arbors is why the vine could just grow free! It has just about taken up the entire property at this point, so I wonder what the plan for the next phase of its growth might be? Wistaria is very common in SoCal, but I’ve certainly never seen anything like this, although a neighbor had to take one out at a time when it was starting to do some damage to their home. It makes me think of “The Little Shop of Horrors.” :-) I would think your trees would grow beautifully tall in your lovely air, Lori! And I’m sure you can feel spring in the air, too? I’m breathing deep!

    • Sulcatas aren’t really rare, but because of their giant size, I wouldn’t say they’re that popular. I don’t have any other friends who have one, but from time to time someone will tell me about a friend of theirs who owns one. The pet stores sell the babies, so I presume they do sell. From what I’ve heard, however, people buy them on impulse not realizing how large they will get and the level of care. Then they are abandoned. We were surprised to see the one on Sunday, and he was considerably larger than Darwin–it does raise some concern for the future. LOL! And yes, this wistaria was utterly amazing! Thanks for stopping by, Karen. :-)

  5. Ahhhhhh…. I can almost smell it. I have one on the west side of my house which provides shade in the summer heat by making a hidden room on the front of the house. Where is this exactly located? I may want to go see it if it is not to far.

    • It’s in Sierra Madre, Nancy. Are you familiar? Just east of Pasadena, almost into Arcadia. :-) The festival is only one day a year, so it’s not open until next spring. I will remember next year when it gets closer to time to think about it, and I’ll remind my California blogging friends to circle their calendars! :-)

    • I felt very inadequate to the photographic challenge, Koji! Part of the problem, too, is that it literally was terraced from one yard above down to another. An aerial shot would have been perfect! LOL! And “smell-a-vision” would be great, too. The festival is about this time every year. If you think of it, maybe you can visit sometime. It’s worth the effort. The setting is casual and you can linger in the garden as long as you’d like. People were just sitting on the grass taking it all in. From my point of view, the homeowners were very gracious!

  6. I would love to see this in full bloom, Debra. I can almost smell its fragrance. I love vines. They have so much character to them as they wind about, joining forces at will; this, my dear, is the mother of all vines. They are fussy here in our climate, though some newer varieties have been developed for our climate. Be very sure you want to grow and maintain one, as evidenced here. I have a friend whose folks lost a garage to wisteria.

    Oh, you have me longing for spring with these photos. It is very cold and snowy today here.

    • I shouldn’t laugh at someone losing their garage, Penny, but I can’t help it. In the last few days I’ve heard so many similar stories and I can just imagine what a shock it would be if you didn’t pay attention and see the damage coming! We did have a neighbor with a similar problem many years ago, and I remember when they took the vine out, we were so sorry to see it go, but he didn’t have a choice! The fragrance was amazingly powerful, as you can imagine! I am glad you enjoyed the spring photos. I was so wishing I had the ability to be up higher than the terraced yards so that I could really show the expanse. But I know you can imagine. Now tomorrow is the first day of spring. I’m hoping you get a little warmth. It’s about time!!

  7. We have many wisteria in gardens here by us… but nothing the size of that… it is magnificent… however I do recall seeing a beautiful specimen in Central Park in NYC.. it was 12 years ago now but for some reason your post brought the memory back…

    • I’m sure wistaria is abundant in South Africa, Rob. Because of you, I must say, I am noticing how many of our botanical gardens are full of South African native plants and flowers. The more spectacular and colorful, at this point I’m almost sure the marker will read “South Africa.” I think this particular vine must be an extremely unique plant. The elaborate system of trellises holding it up off the ground has undoubtedly contributed to its abundant growth. I’m glad I brought back some New York memories, which I hope were happy family times! :-)

      • We had come to visit our Daughter and Son-in-law who were working in Phillie… I did enjoy Central Park for so many different reasons… but one was the plants.. almost felt like home..

  8. I love this flower. It does not grow where I live but I saw it in full bloom when I was in Brisbane, Australia last summer. What a pretty bloom and such a pretty colour! I had never heard of it or seen it till I went to Brisbane. It was great to read about it in your post! ~Thea

    • I was familiar with wistaria, Thea, but now I’m really going to pay attention! I have been completely “won over” with this specimen. I would think they would grow very well in Brisbane. I believe our climates are at least similar. One of our fellow bloggers says he grows one in the Chicago area, which is well below freezing temperatures in the winter, so I wonder if it is possible to grow in your area? It might just take more effort than it would be worth for what I believe is a very short flowering period! You’ll have to come visit some March! :-)

  9. Now that is one heckuva vine! I’d no idea one could grow so large. I have one in my yard, growing along the back fence and down another between the properties. It’s 13 years old now and took a full 7 years to bloom. It’s the scent of the flowers that I love. It perfumes my entire yard every year. I know how its weight can be a problem for mine is pulling a fence post away from the gate. I have to use a chain to keep the gate closed now. I cannot imagine how destructive the weight of this behemoth must be. Thank you for sharing “your” wistaria with us. This is one post I won’t be sharing with my wisteria. I don’t want it getting any ideas.

    • I think this wistaria is a cautionary tale, John! We were recalling a neighbor’s wistaria as it grew larger and larger, eventually pulling down the arbor, which was attached to the house. There was roof damage! It was explained to us on the tour that the elaborate series of trellises and arbor-like overhangs were built independent from any other structure, and many are reinforced with heavy pipe. I’m sure this is an unusually healthy vine, but given enough proper care and structure to support, I’m sure your will grow even stronger. Are you ready for that? LOL! We have to chain our gate against Darwin. Ha! But the fragrance is incredible and I can easily think it is worth the effort to grow a healthy flowering vine. I hope you’re taking pictures now. If you end up with a similar growth spurt you’ll want evidence of its progress! :-)

    • Isn’t the wistaria something, Cathy? It has a whole team of people taking very good care of it. The people who now live on the two properties have, of course, agreed to the one-day tour each year, but it was so funny to watch them just sit on their outdoor furniture taking it all in as we just gushed excitement. It’s truly an amazing vine! I was so eager to share it, so I’m glad you enjoyed. :-)

  10. Utterly spectacular! There was a big speciment up in the Dargle Valley (Natal Midlands) but nothing like that size!
    My Royal Horticultural Society list gives it as Wisteria but acknowledges it is sometimes spelt to match Wistar, the man who gave the name.

    • It has been funny writing with the “wistaria” spelling. My spell-check keeps trying to change it! I even found articles where the spelling in the title was accurate to the festival, but inside the body of the article is was spelled with the common spelling. It does make me wonder how many other plants/species are spelled differently than originally intended. I’m sure there are many so-called errors we commonly pass on. I enjoyed sharing this beautiful specimen. I knew about it in advance and was still utterly amazed!

      • Not only as a result of errors. Smart-ass biologists keep trying to make a name for themselves by messing about with original names of plants. It can get hideously confusing at times.
        The plant is amazing. That is SOME ‘creeper’!

  11. Very beautiful. Gotta love wisteria! Consumer giant P&G is based here in Cincinnati, and I think these wonderful vines cover the trellises of the plaza … but I don’t know when they bloom here.

    • Thank you so much, Dawnriser! I really appreciate the compliment. I find the stories connected to the places I visit so compelling that I really work hard not to overwhelm with too much information. I put the time into preparing for the blogpost and I’m very thankful there are those of you who enjoy…sometimes I start talking about some of these things to friends and realize the interest just isn’t there. It’s fun to have a select few who “get it” with me! LOL! I appreciate your time and interest very much!

  12. Dear Debra, to say “I”m amazed” is an understatement. Never, ever, did I realize that a Wistaria bush could come to weight 250 Tons and weigh down a roof and become a wonder of the world! This truly astonishes me. Thank you for the lovely photographs and the history.

    I’ve been away now for many days and missed a number of your postings. I’m trying this week to visit each blogger I follow and leave one comment–just to say hello and I hope all is well in your life. Thank you for your e-mail. I’m fine now. A dear friend of thirty-five years died on Saturday and I grieve his loss, even as I find myself so grateful that he chose me for a friend. Peace.

    • I’m so sorry, Dee, to hear of your loss. A good friend can be more family than family sometimes. I am sure this is a profound loss at a time when you have already been low, so it’s good to hear you say you’re doing better. Yes, this wistaria truly amazes me, too. I’ve heard of the festival for many, many years and yet still couldn’t believe the size. The fragrance is just incredible, too. I want to encourage you to “make your rounds” as you can, but not to feel at all uncomfortable with the fact that you don’t read every post. It can be impossible when life gets busy or we just need breaks. We need to expect that sometimes! If I don’t hear from someone for a little while I grow concerned they may not be well, but other than that I really hope blogging doesn’t become a chore. I think it could if we don’t watch ourselves! Just continue to be well, my friend! oxo

  13. Really? You wrote this two days ago and I am just now commenting? Please forgive me, Debra.

    I have been looking for this post, because wisteria is one of my favorite springtime sights. I go out every day now looking for those purple flowers, because they are everywhere here when then bloom. We had one grow up a tree in back of our old house, and I loved the sight of it. Your photos have inspired me.

    And, I had no idea that there were two spellings. I’ve always seen the ‘wisteria’ version. I did not know about ‘wistaria.’

    • I’m glad you were able to see the photos of this giant wisteria, Andra, but please don’t feel badly about not commenting. My goodness. I don’t know how you keep up with all you do as it is. I am one who totally believes that our little community (which isn’t all that little) has a very good time connecting and sharing, but given that we DO have lives, at times it’s really a challenge, isn’t it? I’ve been so fortunate that Jay can see how much I enjoy blogging and so has been supportive.

      But back to the vine! I associate wisteria with the south. I think there’s something about the humidity that probably really nourishes the blossoms. When they start to bloom, drink in that fragrance. It is intoxicating! I think the only real use of the wistaria spelling is probably associated with this festival. It may be closely associated with Wistar, so the festival has held it over for all these years, but I don’t think anyone else uses it! March would be a good time for you to visit sometime! :-)

  14. Over here it’s always wisteria, Debra, but even our best specimens are positively puny compared to this marvel. In the UK wisteria flowers in May not March, so the Californian climate obviously suits it to perfection. Those photos have made my snowy day. :-)

    • I’m so pleased to share this giant wisteria with you, Perpetua. This particular vine is certainly abnormally large, and I’ve never seen another anything like it. The spelling is almost always wisteria here, too. In fact, while trying to write the post my computer kept trying to change the spelling. And I was reading articles about the festival where it was spelled two different ways even inside the body of the article. I think the festival organizers have kept the spelling that came through 100 years ago, and it may be directly related to Wistar, but I think the wisteria spelling is going to still be the preferred spelling. It sounds to me like your consistent springtime weather must be about two months later than here, but I hope you get some milder days soon. I will look forward to your photos from Wales!

  15. Oh my gosh Debra I had no idea that a vine could grow to such a size. Really enjoyed reading the history and knowing that it’s still being cared for. I must go see it while its still blooming. We have a wisteria at the Museum and sometimes at “home time” I walk past it just so I can smell it…

  16. Grow them in a couple of large pots that way they won’t take over your nest. I think they could still create a canopy effect if you flank them by post of a pergola. Happy Nesting!

    • What a great idea! I never thought about wisteria in pots, but that would be excellent! It’s blooming everywhere right now and creating such a show. I need to scope out a location for two large pots! Thank you. :-)

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