What the Wisteria Knew About Life and Death (And What I Didn’t)

Wisteria. Sounds like hysteria. The faintest brush of purple. Woody. Twining. Ethereal. Angels could rest here.

Listen to this, “The flowers are produced in pendulous racemes…”  Sounds like a poem. Maybe like a prayer. Hard to believe it has poisonous seeds.

I have a little wisteria tree. It’s the third one I’ve tried to grow. The first one was killed by unexpected heavy snows and freezing temperatures two years ago. I admit I just let it die. I did nothing to protect it.

Someone I loved was dying and there was no room in my heart left for the fragile tree. It stood in my backyard like a sad little Charlie Brown Christmas tree, the exterior manifestation of what was happening to me inside. The cold closing around the heart. I could not save the one I loved. I would not save a tree.

My second wisteria perished for exactly the opposite reason: too much heat. It was the summer of water shortages and the middle-class lawns turned brown. I was creatively dry and my garden remained abandoned. “My plants have to be independent to survive me,” I joked to friends. I wondered if this was true of the people in my life. If they clung too tightly, did I pull away? Was that how I survived?

It’s true I can’t stand to be bound. It’s true I am a person who will change just to untwist from a persona someone has wrapped me in. People say, “Yes, but you have been married for 23 years.” Ah, but he has never told me who I am or who I should be.

And now, this little tree with its new buds. I want this tree to live. I want to see its divine flowers with hues so pure you can reimagine the universe in a petal. I think of Sierra Madre where there’s a wisteria (they say wistaria) more than an acre in size with one and a half million blossoms, the largest blossoming plant in the world with heavy branches bowing in humble supplication to those who allow it to reach this potential.

No one told it to stop growing. So it kept on. No one bound it or built a development in its place. And so it continued to realize what it could become.

My wisteria is yet a baby, survivor of just one winter. If I care for it, one day its tendrils will spiral clock-wise and counter-clockwise. And the tendrils will catch and connect, just as we connect, forming a pattern of unity.

It has spirit, this tree, and a will to survive. I sit on the back steps and watch it, my mind drifting back to when I was a small girl; my grandfather wanting to help tie my shoes and me saying, “I will do it my own self.” My mantra. My weakness. My strength.

I feel tenderness toward this tree, maybe because of its willfulness. It refuses to lean against the trellis, preferring as yet to stand on its own, skinny but healthy. It does not cling to the wooden stakes. Instead, its first tendrils wave in the wind like locks of hair that refuse to be tamed.

It knows who it is, this wisteria, gratefully accepting the rain, meditating in the sun, and growing in whatever direction it chooses.

Photo Credit

“Wisteria” naitokz @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.

“Purple Wisteria” Faungg @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.

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  1. avatar says

    Great post. There is a wisteria that grows on an arched trellis where I work, and every spring I marvel at it–watch it suddenly spring into wild life. Tendrils come off that thing and curl into the air without any regard for the space allocated to them. They catch in your hair as you walk under the arch. they snag in your clothing. I love the tenacity of that wisteria and I can understand your notion of the tree’s spirit. They are strong willed plants, so evocative of freedom in the face of presciption for life.

    • avatarKerry Slavens says

      Thanks for your lovely comment, Andrea. I love your line “so evocative of freedom in the face of prescription for life.”

  2. avatar says

    That was a great read Kerry – thank you. Plants can be useful metaphors for life.

    We also have a wisteria in our backyard. We planted it 4 years ago next to a pergola post. it’s been growing well over the years and has taken over about half the pergola. However, to our dismay it has never flowered. Until this year. Just yesterday I was in the garden and noticed that flower buds are finally blooming. A sign of good new and good things to come this year? I choose to think so…

    • avatarKerry Slavens says

      Thanks Chris…these wisteria are very willful, and a bit stubborn with pushing out the buds. I wish I knew the secret to getting them to flower but, alas. My garden blooms in spite of my lack of knowledge (and yes, I think your blooms this year must be a good sign.)

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