Beijing, 13 April 2014
My French grandmother’s house was … old-fashioned, shall we say. Among its many quirks was the fact that it did not have a flush-toilet. Instead, you eased yourself into this small, cluttered space, and you parked your derriere (your backside) on this beautiful wooden seat to do your besoins (your needs), as the French delicately put it. Once finished, you pulled a lever to open a trap door at the bottom of the porcelain bowl and off went your besoins, helped along with a generous portion of water you poured in from a large enameled metal jug. The exhalations emanating from the opened trap door were sometimes eye-wateringly powerful, and there was always a generally musty smell in the loo. However, the olfactory downsides were more than offset by the beautiful view from the window, framed as it was by the bright green leaves of a wisteria vine which snaked up the outside wall and onto the roof. The view was that much more beautiful in spring when clusters of the wisteria’s light purple flowers thrust themselves at the window. When my mother inherited the house, one of the first things she did was to install a flush toilet. But the wisteria remained. In fact, after my parents retired there my mother encouraged it to spread to other walls nearby, which made it a rare pleasure to go and visit my parents in spring. This is not a photo of the house, but it gives an idea of what would greet my wife and I, with children in tow, after a long drive up from Italy in May.
Since those moments in my grandmother’s loo, I have always had a weak spot for wisteria. At the right moment of the year, I keep an eager lookout for a sudden froth of light purple flowers popping up over a wall or in the corner of a garden. I have a particularly powerful memory of a bike trip which my wife and I made many years ago along the Loire valley, where between one Renaissance chateau
And just last year, when we were in Philadelphia, we stumbled onto a pergola covered by a thick coat of white wisteria, which was a first for me (I’ve mentioned this in an earlier post but I repeat the photo)
And the neighbours to our rooftop garden in our last apartment in Vienna had planted a wisteria, which coiled and twisted its way onto our side, an intrusion we gladly accepted since it rendered so pleasant those first days in spring when my wife (with a very little help from me) toiled at her garden tubs, planting and repotting, after the long sleep of winter. In fact, jealous at their success, I purchased a modest wisteria plant for our side, with dreams of it eventually smothering our balcony. Alas, it perished miserably that summer while we were away for our holidays.
although I mentally castigated the management of the building for not doing a little pruning.
For the first time in my life, I read up a bit on wisteria. And the first thing I discovered is that wisteria is Chinese! Well, there’s also a Japanese wisteria. And two American wisterias. But no European wisteria! So once again, like the weeping willow which I wrote about in my last post and the magnolia which I wrote about a few posts earlier, Europeans have borrowed a plant from China, or maybe in this case from Japan (but not from the US; American wisteria don’t seem to be gardeners’ favourites, even in the US itself, since their flowers are of more modest size, bloom for less time, and are scentless). When you read these cases, you begin to understand why the poorer countries complain about pharmaceutical and other companies from the richer countries coming and “borrowing” their flora and making a fortune selling them, or their chemical components, back home.
But now I’m left with a tricky question: was the wisteria at my grandmother’s house Chinese or Japanese? The literature tells me that the flower-clusters (racemes in the horticultural lingo) of the Japanese wisteria are longer than those of the Chinese wisteria, but I’m buggered if I remember the length of those racemes nodding at the loo window. And anyway, I’m sure raceme lengths are all averages, so I don’t think this would be a good way for an uneducated plant man like me to distinguish a Chinese wisteria from its Japanese cousin. A far more powerful way of distinguishing the two seems to be the direction of twining which the vine adopts. Chinese wisteria twine clockwise, while Japanese wisteria twine counter-clockwise! (I love it; isn’t that a great way of figuring out where a plant comes from? But why would one twine one way and the other the other? The mysteries of genetics). I must remember to send my sister an email (she inherited the house, did further massive works, but kept the wisteria) and ask her which way the wisteria twines. This will no doubt be the moment she concludes that I have finally lost it …
Wisteria along the road-2: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/34926262.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/user/701296/tags/Season%20Spring?photo_page=2%5D
Wisteria in Philadalphia: my photo
Wisteria in Beijing: my photo