Yarb Tales - Wisteria
July 11, 2016

The Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center graces the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas, and helps us to interpret the history of the human use of plants.

As a gardener I have changed the character of this land on which I live and work. The Ozarks have notoriously poor soil, yet plants grow in massive profusion. Today I will wage war on wisteria, an insidious woody vine that was planted on my farm long before I bought the place. If anyone asks me where to find wisteria (Wisteria spp.) for their yard, I do my best to talk them out of it.

Perennial vines, native or not, such as bittersweet, trumpet vine, Japanese honeysuckle, and wisteria are not good choices for shading porches or trellises because in good time they will destroy structures and run rampant on the land. On buildings, the leaves of these plants reach for light and grow out from the overhang. When rain falls on the leaves, the water runs along the stems and is channeled onto the porch. This moisture will rot the structure. As the vine grows it wraps around joints and under rafters. As the diameter of the plant’s stems increase, slowly but surely the nails pop out of the boards.

People think that they can train wisteria to be a tree in the middle of the yard and mow around it to keep it in check. Sure you can, for a while, maybe years. Just know this, underground and just at the surface of the soil wisteria produces stems with roots.

The stem is the axis of the plant—it has the ability to produce all of the other organs. There are various stems that also live underground. Wisteria produces rootstocks which are creeping or repent stems that run along or just under the soil surface, striking roots. These have obvious sections consisting of a succession of joints or nodes. Underground, rootstocks produce scales that have buds which are modified leaves. Eventually those underground stems are going to take advantage of an opportunity to send stems upward. By that time the underground growth has traveled, unseen, outward from the mother plant. Wisteria is like a science fiction alien species, only it is not fiction.

Today a bulldozer is coming to my place to scrape the ground and rip up as much of wisteria as possible. We are dealing with a treacherous organism, which has taken over 500 feet of fenceline and is about 75 feet wide running underground from fence to driveway to house! With the wisteria will go a persimmon thicket, almost all of  the fenceline between my garden and the donkeys and the top soil. I can hardly stand to think of the wildlife that will lose homes today.

The dozer will scrape everything into a pile out to the pasture. After the plants dry out I'll have to have a bonfire. Then the metal will be cleaned up and the donkeys will get their pasture back. With the wisteria gone, there will be much more space for tasty grasses for their grazing pleasure.

After the destruction I will have a blank palette in the garden. I will sow buckwheat and peas immediately. Then crimson clover, Trifolium incarnatum this fall as a winter and early spring cover crop These plants will shade the ground, help to prevent erosion and add organic matter to begin to rebuild the soil structure. The peas and clover will fix nitrogen from the air into root nodules in the soil. I know that I will still have wisteria patches to grub out. Today's battle will not win the war on wisteria. It is a good beginning to reclaim the land.

If I don’t see you in the future, I’ll see you in the pasture.