Chinese Wisteria: Beautiful and Deadly

Wisteria sinensis

“In times of stress, that’s when this plant flowers.”

A reflective note about Wisteria after hanging out with it : It doesn’t need good soil – it can grow practically anywhere because it can fix nitrogen – it has what it needs. In fact, it grows better when there is trauma – when conditions are the worst – it sends out more vines and blooms, draping vast landscapes with brilliant purple inflorescences. It has something beautiful and powerful to show the world, but first it must climb its way up to the light.

Take a look at the wisteria video we made to get an overview of this amazing plant.

How Toxic is Wisteria?

The toxicity of wisteria is from glycosides in the plant named wistrin and lectin. It’s found in all parts of the plant, but in small quantities doesn’t seem to be much of a problem. That’s why there are many reports online that you can actually eat the flowers. I tried 4-5 while making the wisteria video above and found that it started burning my throat slightly and gave me a stomach ache later in the day. Thus, it seems advisable not to make these a regular part of your diet, even if a flower or two won’t hurt you.

The part with the most toxicity is the seeds and seed pods. Do not try to ingest these as they will make you sick, sometimes for up to a week. Eating wisteria and the seed pods can cause poisoning in pets. Dogs in particular should stay away from eating wisteria. But, I should note that on the greater scale of what should or should not be in your yard, this is far from problematic and it’s relatively safe given that the seeds don’t actually taste good at all.

How to tell if you have Chinese, American or Japanese Wisteria

Technically there are 9 species of wisteria but the most common are the Chinese, Japanese and American wisteria plants. So, I’ll give the basics on how to tell which wisteria you have.

Chinese Wisteria flowers early – March, April or May. It starts before there are any leaves on the vine. The color can change, so don’t look at that so much. Also, look at how it twists up the tree. If you’re looking down at the ground, the direction of twisting up the tree is counter clockwise – refer to the video above.

Japanese Wisteria has the largest inflorescences. However, that doesn’t help much if you’re in the woods. There is no way to compare two plants to each other. The easiest way to tell a Japanese Wisteria is simply by looking at the twisting direction. The Japanese wisteria will twist in a clockwise direction as it goes up the tree! How cool is that!

American Wisteria flowers later – late April to June in most places. The flowers are smaller, but again, that’s not super helpful if you haven’t seen a lot of different types. The big key is that it flowers when the leaves are fully out on this plant! Also, it’s good to look for counter-clockwise twisting. Only the Chinese and American ones do that.

Where is Wisteria Found?

The wisteria vines are native to North American, China and Japan. Now, they’ve been spread all over the world and are even considered an invasive weed in some areas. However, from my experience and a bit of research, it seems they don’t spread well from seed, which means it more or less spreads only by suckers. If you have an established plant somewhere, it can take over a small patch. If not, it’s hard for it to cause big problems. That’s a good thing for such a beautiful plant.

Making Rope from Wisteria

I made a longer article about making rope from wisteria here on StoneAgeMan. However, this is the gist of it in this short video.

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Written by Rob Nelson

Rob is an ecologist from the University of Hawaii. He is the co-creator and director of Untamed Science. His goal is to create videos and content that are entertaining, accurate, and educational. When he's not making science content, he races whitewater kayaks and works on Stone Age Man.

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