How to Grow Wisteria

Wisteria blooms

Growing Wisteria Key Points

  1. A very vigorous, deciduous, climbing plant.
  2. Highly scented showy blooms in April, May & June.
  3. Requires supporting wires/trellis.
  4. High maintenance "red Wheelbarrow plant"
  5. Requires pruning twice a year, February and August

  Wisteria is a deciduous, twining climbing plant with a long flowering period and highly scented blooms. A Wisteria in bloom is a magnificent sight with long, trailing scented blooms in either blue, purple, pink or white. Traditionally, Wisteria is grown on a south-facing wall. Wisteria rewards well, a beautiful climber flowering between April and June, and sometimes a second flush in August.  Wisteria floribunda (which twines clockwise) is originally from Japan, and w.sinensis (twines anti clockwise) is from China and is the more vigorous of the two. On W.senensis the flowers appear before foliage, and on W.floribunda flowers and foliage come out at the same time. 

 Wisteria is vigorous, growing up to 9 meters (30ft) which means it needs a large space. It is not self supporting and requires a framework of wires or supports to grow up. It is best to put the framework in place before planting Wisteria. Although Wisteria grows well full sun, it will also tolerate light shade. The downside to growing Wisteria is that it is a demanding plant to grow in terms of time and attention. I have labelled it a red wheelbarrow plant.

  The difficulties are not in getting Wisteria to grow, because it is a vigorous climber; the trick is to get it to flower. One essential step to get Wisteria to flower is correct pruning. Wisteria requires pruning twice a year, (summer and Winter) to ensure it flowers consistently each year. Pruning is key to flowering. As the Wisteria matures, it grows further up the wall, ladders are needed for pruning, which adds to the maintenance. Wisteria is vigorous and although it can be pruned to restrain growth, it still needs a large space. It may sound obvious, Wisteria is best planted in the right place from the outset. This is because it forms very strong, woody roots and is hard to remove once established.

red wheelbarrow

Wisteria is a fabulous climbing plant, one of the most spectacular but also one of the most time-consuming and more difficult to grow and get to flower. Follow the Sunday Gardener's advice and video help and your Wisteria will bloom.

Images of Wisteria

If you would like to see Wisteria in a garden setting, check out the National Garden Scheme Wisteria gardens. You can visit a local garden, enjoy beautiful gardens, and the modest entrance fees go to support nursing and cancer charities. 

How to Make Wisteria Flower

 A regular question to the website is how to get wisteria to flower. Common causes of Wisteria failing to flower are too much shade, too fertile soil, sparrows eating the flower shoots, a poor plant or, often, a lack of pruning. 

It is a member of the legume family and rarely requires feeding, as it will fix its own nitrogen. Sparrows are partial to the buds but they rarely eat all of them, so if your Wisteria does not flower very much or at all, chances are it is a poor plant or lack of pruning. These two points are the main cause of lack of flowering. In over 10 years, I have never fed (or watered) my Wisteria which is illustrated. That said, if you are struggling to get your Wisteria to flower, besides adopting a careful pruning regime, you could also feed it a high potash feed in the Spring.  The embryo flowers on Wisteria form in the late summer of the preceding year. If your Wisteria is struggling and late summer is very dry, you could water particularly in the early years.

Two main steps to get a Wisteria to flower, (1)buy a Wisteria in flower and  (2)prune it twice a year.

Buy A Wisteria plant in Spring and In flower

Wisteria Blooms

If you want your Wisteria to flower, start with buying a Wisteria plant in the spring in flower or with flower buds on it. That way you know it can flower. The image left shows a small newly planted Wisteria with some small flowers on it. This Wisteria was newly planted in 2007 and within 7 years had reached a height of 3.5m or around 12ft, and by 2018 had covered the entire wall space at the back of the house and is the Wisteria featured in the video above ' Wonderful Wisteria'. This is a testament to the vigorous nature of Wisteria and the need for longer (and longer) ladders to prune it. Hard to image this tiny plant grew to cover an entire wall of the house in 10 years.

 Wisteria is best purchased as a grafted plant. You are likely to have problems with any plant grown from seed, which may be cheaper, but it may take a very long time to flower, as in more than a decade. You can spot a grafted plant as there is a bulge in the stem just above soil level in the plant pot. If you view the video about summer pruning Wisteria at around 3min 40 sec you can see the base of the Wisteria and the graft bulge. 

When planting a new Wisteria, water it well and ensure that it does not dry out in the early stages. Once established, it will look after itself. Even in the drought of 2018 I did not water the wisteria and it was fine. Wisteria is fully hardy, although frost can damage the emerging flowers (racemes)(see below) which means a sheltered spot is best.  Wisteria is easy to establish, fast growing and need a lot of space, and time. Wisteria can be grown as a standard if space is limited, which will involve careful pruning or select a smaller variety of Wisteria such as Domino’ or Wisteria brachybotrys.

Wisteria can be grown in a container but with varying degrees of success. Recently, a friend asked me for advice about growing a Wisteria in a container as the Wisteria had failed to flower. I suggested removing it from the container and replanting in a sunny spot, and the following spring it flowered beautifully. Given the problems getting Wisteria to flower growing it in a container adds a layer of difficulty. 

How to Prune Wisteria

 To make a wisteria flower, it is essential to prune regularly twice a year; a winter prune in February and summer prune in July/August. Unless Wisteria is pruned hard, it will put energy into vigorous leaf growth at the expense of flowers, and so the Wisteria will not flower or produce fewer flowers. 

 Wisteria is vigorous and if not pruned regularly, it will quickly become rampant and outgrow its allotted space. In addition, plants need to be trained horizontally, which aids flowering.  

If Wisteria is growing well you may get a second flush of weaker flowers in late summer around August time. I find this causes a bit of a pruning dilemma, as those flowers can be just at the time of the summer prune, and I hate to cut them off. Delaying pruning by a couple of weeks will make no difference in the long term.

How to Make a Wisteria Flower

How to Winter Prune Wisteria

Wonderful Wisteria

How to Prune Wisteria - Winter Prune

Winter Prune Wisteria

 We often think Pruning Wisteria is tricky, but it's helpful to know that Wisteria is a very vigorous climbing plant and you would be hard pushed to kill it by pruning. Equally, you are unlikely to stop its flowering, providing you prune at the right time which is February for the Winter prune and July/August for the summer. The only risk when pruning a Wisteria is to cut into the hard wood main frame of the plant.

In the winter prune, you are shortening the spurs, and in the summer prune removing leafy growth; two different types of pruning. 

 In some ways, the winter prune is easier because you can see the framework of the Wisteria. Winter pruning is best done in February, on a mild day. In the winter prune you need to cut the shoots back to 3/4 buds reducing to 8/10 cms (3-4") Aim to leave the main plant framework in place and prune the shoots coming off the main frame work to encourage the formation of spurs.    

How to prune Wisteria - Summer Prune

Wisteria sheds many leaves

The summer pruning is just as essential, and it is best to prune hard. The purpose of the summer prune is to restrict and cut back the vigorous growth, so the plant will throw out new flower shoots in the spring. Taking into account the main framework, and where you want the plant to grow, cut back and prune hard the long wippy (soft) growth to about 15cmc (6") Leave unpruned that which is needed for the framework. 

You may need to cut off a lot of the long wippy growth and also cut off all laterals which appear at the base of the plant. These are shoots being thrown out at the base and remove all.  

Thanks to Helen Yemm writing in her excellent gardening column, who remarked on the staining caused by Wisteria sap. It leaves brown marks on your clothes which nothing will shift. This makes it most important to be wearing your oldest gardening scruffs for this job. 

A final small point on the time and maintenance required by Wisteria. It drops a lot of leaves in November and December, see image left, which also takes some maintenance clearing them up.

If after trying everything, pruning twice a year for a year or so, watering and feeding it still will not flower consider abandoning it and buying another. Write it off to experience and when planting your new Wisteria, make sure it is in a sunny, sheltered spot. 

Wisteria as a standard

Growing Wisteria as a standard

 One option if you want to grow Wisteria but do not fancy climbing up ladders to prune is to train it as a standard.

It is best to start with a smaller, less vigorous variety of Wisteria. It may be tempting to plant in a container, but Wisteria is more tricky to grow in a container and it is better planted in a suitably sunny spot. I have used this image because it shows the hoop framework which is used to support the Wisteria and create the shape. It is not essential to use a frame, but it does help to create a framework over which the Wisteria can climb and the flower plumes dangle down. Train one main stem upwards and then allow stems to spread over the framework, or fan out naturally.

Good varieties of Wisteria to grow

   Suggested good varieties are:

  1. Wisteria floribunda 'Multijuga' which has scented racemes up to 1m long and is an attractive lilac colour and with the RHS garden merit award. 
  2. A good pink variety is Wisteria floribunda 'Rosea' racemes up to 60cms long, scented and pale pink Wisteria floribunda 'Alba' is slightly less vigorous with white scented racemes up to 60cm and scented.
  3. The traditional Wisteria sinensis has strong colour and fragrance.
  4. If you have a large space and are looking for a striking garden feature, I have seen Wisteria combined with Laburnum growing over an archway to create a tunnel of lilac and yellow. Word of warning: Laburnum is poisonous and the seeds highly toxic so not a plant suitable for a garden accessed by pets or children.  
  5. For smaller gardens, and for training Wisteria as a standard (see below) check out Wisteria frutescens Amethyst Falls

Frost damage

  Frost can occasionally cause problems. The Wisteria shown in the left image has been growing and flowering happily for 10 years with no problems. However, the Spring of 2017 had unusual weather, mostly it was drier than usual, and often warm, which advanced the growing season and the Wisteria was in full bud when in mid-April. Then a very cold spell struck with both ground and air frosts in many parts of the country. The winegrowers in the south of England reported 75% damage to their crop after temperatures dropped to -5.

Frost doesn't do Wisteria any good either, as the image left shows. Some buds have flowered, but as illustrated in the image, other buds have been severely damaged and will not flower. It is disappointing because only about half the Wisteria will flower, although not fatal. Wisteria is tough and it will come back next year and there may even be a second flush of flowers in August, depending on the weather, as always.  You can minimise frost damage by planting Wisteria in a sheltered spot.

Last updated 21.12.2021