Monday, 29 April 2013

The Consequences of Wisteria - Lay Lady Lay


I feel such a heel sometimes.  Like a grumpy kill-joy, smashing illusions and fantasies.  When people (sorry, I mean women) confide in me that they love wisteria I get this uncontrollable rictus of the face.  My mouth stiffens and my eyes harden.  Something ghastly comes out of my mouth.

Sometimes I say, "Well of course you do, everyone does." I try to bite back the comment about how it's like world-peace, or creme brulee, or spring.  Sometimes I make a feeble start on the practical considerations discussion but that doesn't go anywhere - a pall settles on us both and backing away ensues.  I have to admit that it all adds up to me looking like I don't love wisteria, and God knows what that makes me.

Now I don't know if people (women) feel the same affection for the song Lay Lady Lay, from Nashville Skyline.  Mainly because I've only discussed it a couple of times in my whole life, unlike the wisteria, which seems to happen at least once a week.  Still, you can all see the connection between the plant and the song can't you, beflowered stone towers, long hair from a high window, courtly love on the furniture.

 Wisteria after flowering

Wisteria, unlike courtly love, is marvellous for disease resistance. It's a vast limp and bendy tree, easily flattened against a wall (again, unlike courtly love) and very harmonious with its bright green leaves, gentle grey stems and lilac or white flowers.  The hanging down of the flowers is the coup de grace and reflects the loveable pliability of the whole plant. That appearance, of loveable pliability, is the key to the song as well as the plant. 

Unmanaged wisteria.

I read Petrarch and Dante's La Vita Nuova as a young woman and gulped their version of courtly love down, like a fish.  I knew it was the other side of the coin of religion-fuelled fighting and war - but who cared?  Apparently men could fall in love with you on the basis of a single glance, and then they would do whatever you wanted. Excellent idea!  Incomprehensible, but excellent.  Somehow, feverishly, almost in a panic, I hybridised that notion with Greer-influenced feminism and the possibility of righteous indignation.  Result - to say the very least, confusion.

At the same time, I looked round and saw I was not alone in my knightly quest.  Everyone had long hair, those sort of circlets round their heads, a misty, floaty look. We weren't "dressing up" like they do nowadays.  We were thinking of resisting an unfair society, poor innocents that we were, not quite spotting how the freedom and the love fitted in together with it all.

I wonder if that odd pre-Raphaelite resurgence is explicable.  We'd had Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot and Melanie in a long frock, the Rolling stones singing that Lady Jane song.  Our mothers were often irritable domestic tyrants, freed after the war to reign in the private sphere. Many were annoyed at having been chased back to the home by the male domination of the public realm.

We new women didn't want the domestic rage, so we wanted to get out of the home-centred life.  But for some of us, there was a glass ceiling round our brains.  This "lady" notion seemed to refer to a private world of simultaneous leisure and influence.  Much nicer, insidious and unreal, but much nicer.

My generation thought we could have real choices, we would be luckier and free of the worst of patriarchy.  This song seemed to say we deserved this kind of flattering love as well, at no cost.  We never noticed how little life or character this lady had, or that the song was all about the man, his insistence, his truth, his need and energy.  He goes so far as to tell us that when we prostrate ourselves the world will begin.

And that word "lady".  I remember my shock when I first heard it, from another woman, said in all seriousness to describe some man's girlfriend.  "His lady".  What?  I thought we had been fighting for the right to be women, now we're allowed to use this word ourselves?  I expect I sound a bit shrill.  And? 

So I'm giving at least some of the blame for my confusion to this song. I'm nothing if not fair.  I was shocked that it came from the person who seemed to have sung, so excitingly, about sex as an honest negotiation between equals, rather than a manipulative game   So that was all an illusion, perhaps a game itself.  Here we were, stuck in a castle, sewing nettle shirts and being lovely.  But it was OK!  We could have our cake and eat it too!

The supplicant troubadour is not a friend, nor an equal companion in this joint enterprise of laying (I know) on his big brass bed.   And the sound of the song - enticing foreplay but a bit schlocky really, admit it, you know exactly where it's going.

I don't mind the voice at all, indeed I rather like it but the whole thing makes me uncomfortable.  As people have often said, the bed almost has a life of its own, certainly more presence and personality than the dim lady, who can't see the colours in her own mind.  And the supplicant troubadour is terribly pleased with himself.

Right, now I've unkindly picked holes in a very pretty song let's turn to the equally pretty wisteria, and recognise its many assets.  It's one of the mainstays of our gardening imagination: add delphiniums, a magnolia, lavender, roses and box - you've got a classy and desireable garden.  Nothing wrong with it.  Like another version of romantic love, it can look fresh and so right, to every new generation.

Wisteria is virtually indestructible once started;  you might have to wait for it to balance itself out and you'll have to prune it, from the word go, and more than you ever imagined.  But if it settles down, gets enough sunshine and water, and learns to flower, you will obviously be entirely happy.

You'll put it in the front garden and people will stop you in the street to express their appreciation and admiration.  You'll feel proud and hold your head up high. You'll prune it again, and again.  At first you'll follow the instructions, twice a year in July and February, back to five buds in the summer, then back to two or three in winter.   You'll realise you're creating flowering spurs and you'll understand which are leaf buds and which contain flowers.

You'll become more slapdash, swearing as you reinforce the wiring or the trellis for it to hang on to, cursing as you haul its long feelers out of the drainpipes and from under the roof tiles.  One day, as you get out the ladder, you'll look at it and wonder.  You'll realise it's a long time since you just enjoyed it -  the whole thing has become a relationship based on benefits conferred, you haven't had a good laugh with it for ages.

And you may well be male (clue - ladder) doing it for the woman in your life.  See the horrible thing I'm doing with this?  One of the consequences of wisteria, and the wistful, listless damsel in the song, may be increased, unbalanced dependence on the male, a dependence he may have neither the will nor the ability to meet, even if he thought it's what he wanted.  And then he will annoy us.  We don't mean it, but that's the way it can work out. And sometimes we bring it on ourselves.  Do you want a living, growing symbol in your garden?

Of course wisteria can be managed, more easily and well, up a post, constantly tipped and checked, never extending itself, lapping up heat, light and water. It will still be more beautiful than anything else when it flowers. I don't deny this. Chinese varieties, sinensis, flower slightly before their leaves appear. Floribunda varieties, the Japanese, tend to be be later and leafier in flower.

If the word "macrobotrys " appears, that should indicate extremely long racemes of flower.  Those varieties are at the far end of the exquisite demands of desire.   That pale pink one above, so poorly photographed, and clearly visible from the Bridge of Sighs at St Johns College, Cambridge, UK, may not be one of those, but still quickens the pulse.

Sometimes I think wisteria is like an advertisement for gardening.  It's a public plant, succeeding best on large walls and beautiful ancient facades.  In a smaller garden, or on a regular fence, it doesn't always convince.  But if you pass by a beautifully-pruned and managed wisteria outside someone's house, you'll feel its magnetic pull.  Inspirational, ideal gardening, everyone can see the point.  I hesitate to use the words trophy wife, but there it is, couldn't stop myself.

Gardening needs spectacular, legendary plants in a domestic setting if it is to fire the imagination of a generally not terribly interested populace.  But there are a lot of wisteriae about - you're not obliged to have your own.  If you're female you won't necessarily want to hear this, I know that.

In the part of Italy where I partly live, wisteria is used slightly differently, on pergolas and other supports, far less on walls.  It is meant as much to create shade in summer as for its flowers.  It's in lots of ordinary gardens but somehow less noticeable, the flowering lasts well into the leafing phase, blending into everything else.


Except for this one.  Perhaps a double, lacks charm really.

Here below, in this public-looking extravaganza of a property, wisteria is the principal decorative plant, running along the top of every piece of construction.  Slightly out of this world but appropriate in this house, where you can't quite imagine ordinary people live.  You can see the flowers on the right.  It's not a special kind, but the way it has been used strikes me as rather effective, especially given that there is nothing in  competition with it.  Sometimes I feel that's the key: wisteria let loose is too gardenesque and overwhelming to go with other flowering plants. 

Narcissi at its feet would not go amiss of course.  The symbolic value never ends.

This next picture shows wisteria given its head, allowed to ramp up a tree until its vegetative growth reached enough light to trigger flower formation naturally.  I think it comes from Magnolia Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina.  I remember seeing plenty of escaped plants around there, covering acres of woodland, high in the trees, their blooms a bit pallid and scrawny.  This one looks like a selected variety.  But it's pretty big, my photograph does not do its reach justice.

Grafted and named varieties are obviously the thing to get if you are to enjoy the particular rare beauty of the wisteria you imagined.  But be aware that your plant might also be a battleground.  If an unnoticed shoot from under the graft develops it will vigorously overwhelm the demure, helpless beauty above it.  Then you will have that sad and pointless object, a wisteria that refuses to flower.  So you need to be on top of the baby wisteria from the word go, nipping it and checking it, constantly keeping its mind on the job of growing up and becoming the languid beauty we all desire.

Better, especially against the dark.  They're fussier about background than you might think..
Why is it women who buy all the wisteria?  Why is it women who love this song most?   I don't blame us, for who would have  expected either fantastical symbol, plant or song, to turn out to matter?  In the world of major machine-driven maintenance that gardening turns out to be, or in that other "real" gender-sensitive world of business, competition and finance, the occasional demanding climber or a little courtly love don't add much to the imbalance between men and women.

But I have solutions up my sleeve for both anyway.  Not to solve the imbalances - my trust is in the the new breed of wideawake women for that - just to deal with the self-entrapping wisteria and the song itself.

For the song, hunt out and listen to the Hard Rain version.  The whole album is supreme but this rendition of the song, which becomes bawdy and rampant, leaves no listener in any doubt.  This is the uncourtliest of love, rewritten to yank a willing woman off the dance floor and quickly upstairs.  Love is not the issue here, but a real choice is explicitly offered.  It's another truth, just as real, one it's important for any woman to take account of and address, preferably before she makes that big brass bed and lies on it.  And a much livelier song, with Rob Stoner (I think) helping belt it out, like a companion hoodlum.  When I listen to this, I don't feel my bones and will weakening, that has to be a plus.

For the wisteria, well I assume we're talking about a wall or fence in a domestic garden here.  I suggest being much more active and brutal with the pruning than you ever thought you could be.  You can keep it as a single line even, at the right level, developing spurs all along.  Cut everything away that doesn't conform to the shape you want.  Train it hard.  Never let it tell you how gentle, harmless and romantic it is.

Just to prove  how much control is possible.

All this control seems like holding the wisteria back, perhaps you're preventing it from reaching its potential. But its mind is filled with nonsense so don't give it any quarter.  There is no adored and helpless damsel, there is no creepy, minstrel saviour, nor any loving rescue.  I'm telling my young self, not you of course

So let's be practical.  Think of the two metre high boundary of your garden as the wall of a room.  You're standing furniture against it as well as papering the wall and putting some lights and paintings up.  So go for buttresses and clipped shapes, augmented with carefully managed decorative deciduous shrubs and perennials.  Use pots and blocks to raise things up against the wall.  Make a picture of it, with variety and balance.

Fit the wisteria in if the wall is sunny: make it live properly, with others, not drifting selfishly all over the place.  Add appropriate trellis, mirrors, grilles, sculpted heads, whatever you like.  Just make sure you use the whole height, starting from the base, rather than hanging, like hair, in a great bunch from the top.  Gardening on the walls, it's all the go.

Those decorative deciduous shrubs won't leave you with great ropy stems tangling upwards.  Once you've worked out whether flowers come on unflowered wood made last year (so cut out some flowered branches from the base and pin the new ones back) or on older wood like wisteria (so cut out the extension growth you don't need) you will find the pruning an interesting and rewarding exercise.  Cut out all growth pointing away from the wall, whenever it catches your eye.  Can be fun, even.  Better than wiping surfaces and cleaning paintwork anyway.  I rarely see it done as it could be, people are always in a rush to cover their fences with big climbers and I have been the same. 

Once, many years ago I visited a garden where senecio greyii, hibiscus, deutzia and corokia had been used in this way.  The elderly lady who cared for it said she had done it naturally, because she liked pruning.  It was arty and interesting, with many seasons of interest.   You might prefer to apply yourself to apples and pears, but philadelphus, dipelta, exochorda, berberis, chaenomeles obviously, virtually any small tree or shrub that accepts repeated pruning could be espaliered and used like this.  All under your control, ladders only if you want them, the only price attention, care and a certain amount of self-belief to meet the challenge.  I'm sorry I have no inspirational photographs, I hope you can see it in your mind's eye. 

So let's drag that damsel out of the flower-clad turret to engage in her own fulfilment.  May she recognise that what looks and feels like power over the susceptible male is nothing more than hopeful fantasy, its consequences utterly unsure.  Let her be wary of the consequences of wisteria.  May she enjoy that bed if she wants to, and may she claim the colour-vision for herself.

Let honesty and delight flourish.   Clearly, I'm being subjunctive, heaven forbid I should be shrill or bossy, as you know, I'm much too loveable and pliable for that.


  1. ha! wonderful. despite having no green digits at all i loathe wisteria almost as much as forsythia. i do agree about that song, which was so shocking and not at all what we were supposed to be about. but, as you say, we had no sold female role models - ladies in floaty frocks or grim-faced mothers. now, of course, as we have discussed, we have ourselves morphed into mrs bennett whom nobody, not even mr b, could persuade to be supine! xx

  2. Oh thank you Penny. I didn't know you loathed wisteria, what even that Cambridge one? It was a bit Ms Sandberg, a bit Mrs T that brought this particular post on. Got myself quite tangled up, the full story of 70s feminism remains to be understood. Quite right about the role models by the way, I think now that we didn't notice them - the real mould breakers were quietly slogging away at their serious jobs, while we rushed about talking. Always the way.xx

  3. I don't know where to start! Ian has just built a mighty construction for me to grow wisteria on. Why? I have so much unmanaged and unmanageable open space I wanted to find a way to create a wall to enclose the side garden. You are shockingly right about Lay lady, lay. In fact all of this 70s feminism stuff speaks to me very strongly. I was there, in my long skirts, with my jumbled romanticism and determination to build a new world with new relationships. 30 years on I look at the rise of porn star grooming for girls and despair. But I still call myself a feminist. I still negotiate every day in my relationship with my second husband which veers between happy equality and a battlefield. But he still builds the structure and I still buy the wisteria.

    1. D'you know Elizabeth I was worried about being too damning of both these things because I know how much they mean to people and how many love them. I never want to damn things out of hand,just on a whim, so it was about thinking about it and being interested in it rather than disliking or rejecting either thing.

      It was a strange time, stranger times have followed, as you say. Sometimes it seems the veneer of equality is so thin and we should never be complacent, obviously, as you are not. xx Jane

      ps enclosure is important!

    2. The thing that fascinates me is how profoundly some things have changed (I am talking feminism now, not gardening) and how utterly others have not or have changed for the worse. When I was pregnant with my first child I was taken off my very public presentational job with a big accountancy firm because "a pregnant woman just doesn't fit with our image". That would never happen now, however much management might want it to, and even big business would not say it. Who says political correctness has no substance? But I at least in my naivety had thought that we would reach a point where women were not defined simply by their looks. Wrong. If anything both boys and girls are more oppressed by an obsession with appearance. It there has been any change there it is has been in making the net have an even narrower mesh and catch more fish.

    3. excuse long wait, am without broadband and have to climb hill to local cafe, but very interested in what you have to say. I think we (both genders) made a major mistake back then. We believed the personal was political and it just isn't. Institutions and political life can go ahead independently almost of individuals, as you say, the institutions are now much improved. Then power imbalances are expressed in the personal area, perhaps even more strongly. The institutional world continues to feel a bit fragile however and the onslaught of individual perversities, of every kind, including greed, feels and indeed is very powerful. Maybe it was just better hidden before. Good insitutions doing the right thing have to be the way forward. So maybe there is hope. Though like you, I'm worried about the continuing personal stress and damage, and we all have to do our bit to manage the personal wisteria I suppose.

  4. I am a woman. I loathe wisteria. I call it histeria.