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Wisteria Lane

Meet my archenemy.


If so, you've never met my wisteria.

There are two stands of it growing on the farmhouse-style fence that separates my driveway from my front lawn, one on each side of the walkway. Each starts in the earth with a knotty fist-wide trunk, then rises about waist-high to splay tentacles outward along the fence railings. Each plant spans about a dozen feet side to side.

Above, the plants send sprays and runners of tendril into the air that arch and dangle over your head. This isn't simply because they look pretty. They're looking for something to grab. If they're not cut, these growths will curve back down and wrap themselves around whatever they find. They grow with unnerving speed — heading out for work in the mornings, I have found tendrils wrapped around the antenna of my car like green, slow-moving constrictors.

This disturbs me. Garden plants shouldn't act like tropical carnivores in horror books; they should be placid, not ferocious. Sheep, not wolves.

Wisteria violates this order. I suspect that if I poked around in its leaves, I would emerge with the bones of small birds shrouded in wisteria vines. Assuming I could back get out, of course.

Wisteria is famously aggressive — Wikipedia notes cheerfully that uncontrolled strands "will certainly rend latticework, crush thin wooden posts, and can even strangle large trees."

The first year we lived in this house, I cut the wisteria back. I used a pair of garden shears and snipped away. After I was satisfied, I collected the scraps and leavings and dumped them in the trash, whistling. But the plant wasn't going down without a fight. For the rest of the day my hands burned and itched, no matter how much I washed them.

"What is this thing?" I cried out to my wife. "It sears my flesh with its ichor!"

"It's like 'Alien,'" she said. "It has acid for blood."

My wife does not hate the wisteria, though she acknowledges its quirks. She is reluctant to cut it; she rhapsodizes over its annual show of flowers, which turn our driveway into an explosion of blooms for several weeks.

I see through this. I see malevolence in it. I know the wisteria simply is toadying to gain favor. It understands that we will allow it to live among us if it pleases us now and then. So far, it has been proven correct. It has become commonplace around suburbs and yards.

In his book "The Botany of Desire," journalist Michael Pollan describes how plants have interacted with humans to gain benefits from us — apples get spread around the world, flowering plants are lovingly tended by armies of human retainers, and so on. He emphasizes that rather than simply being the ones acted upon, many plants have evolved to take advantage of humans. The ones that produce fruit or flowers or medicines flourish with our help.

Pollan's point is that despite our human-centered view of the universe, we are not alone in it. Other creatures are here, interacting with us. Like us, they have wants.

I wonder what designs the wisteria has upon us. Some nights as I lie half-awake I can hear it rustling in the shadows, and I wonder what it is dreaming about. After a while, the moonlight soothes me. I turn over in my bed and I sleep. Meanwhile, all through the night, it sends out its tendrils, testing the air, reaching out in the dark until it finds something. S


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