Volume 75, Number 11 | August 3 - 9, 2005

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

A wisteria growing unchecked at 18 Gay St. has engulfed the building.

Wisteria vines: Climbing into New York City history

By Jeffrey T. Iverson

Living in New York City, we often yearn for something to reconnect us with nature, to transport us momentarily from our smoggy, concrete prison. Perhaps that’s just what Johnsy, a pneumonia-stricken Greenwich Village artist in O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf,” finds while gazing out her window at the vine shedding its leaves in the November wind — something to make living in New York a little more bearable.

O. Henry’s story was set around 1906, but a century later, the vines climbing the walls of the Village still draw our gazes up from the sidewalk to wonder at their knotty, winding ways. Some of these vines appear as old as the buildings themselves, and may have even been there when O. Henry wrote his story. Indeed, vines like English ivy, Japanese honeysuckle and Chinese wisteria, are tied up in the history of Greenwich Village. And as their names suggest, they came from distant lands but have managed to carve out a life in New York like so many American immigrants.

Such is the case with the scrappy Chinese wisteria (wisteria sinensis), introduced in the United States in 1816, and now one of the most common vines in the Village. Named after the 19th-century American anatomist Caspar Wistar, the vines are some of the most striking and fragrant bloomers in the pea family. You can’t miss a flourishing wisteria on a Village row house: from a corner wall or following guide wires up a facade, it seems to erupt out of the ground, climbing toward the roof, only to have its thick, Tarzan-like vines cascade back downward. Their abundant foliage turns yellow and falls in autumn. In the spring, they bloom with heavy, drooping bunches of purple, white or pink flowers.

As the owner of Plantworks, Inc., an urban landscaping and garden center at 28 E. Fourth St., Neil Mendeloff, 55, has worked with wisteria for 31 years. “Wisteria runs rampant, it runs fast, it loves water, it gets lots of foliage,” Mendeloff said. Wisterias need significant maintenance otherwise they quickly become a liability. Mendeloff had recently worked on a 50-year-old wisteria on a building by Washington Square that had begun strangling a nearby tree. The vine’s weight, coupled with the tree’s rotting trunk, had brought them crashing to the street. “In a lot of locations it develops a canopy,” Mendeloff said. “It can be dangerous for homeless to sleep under.” Moreover, wisterias are poisonous — two wisteria floribunda seeds can kill a child.

And if wisterias can be a risk for passersby, they can be a royal headache for the owner. “Wisteria vines can break glass, break windows, break wood; they can force things to burst apart,” Mendeloff says. Despite this, customers keep buying wisterias. “In 20 to 30 years, it could give you other problems. But that’s another issue; at the time you want fast green.”

One person who sees wisterias as much more than just “fast green” is Stephen White, 46, former director of operations at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. White says their goal is preserving what he calls the “historic fabric” of the Village. “Fabric is kind of a broad term,” he explained. “It’s the buildings and the materials out of which they’re made, the parks and their plant life, street furniture, which includes fences, lampposts, benches — and it’s wisteria vines.”

As part of their 13th annual awards ceremony, during which Village denizens are recognized for their preservation efforts, the society gave the 2003 Wisteria Award to Lee Anderson. The award, on behalf of all the wisteria vines in the Village, acknowledged Anderson’s still-thriving 47-year-old vines — a ripe, old age considering wisterias usually only live 50 years in the wild.

Anderson, 86, has lived at 35 Stuyvesant St. for over half a century. In the years after World War II, several of the 18th- and 19th-century homes on Stuyvesant St. went on the market. Realizing the historical value of the property, Anderson immediately contacted his friends. “I got people to buy all the houses but one,” he said. For himself, Anderson chose a then $10,000, 13-room, six-floor, 1850s “Renwick house” — after its architect, James Renwick, the designer of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The diagonal-running Stuyvesant St., crossing E. Ninth St. between Third and Second Aves., dates to 1787, when Petrus Stuyvesant widened a lane on his 120-acre farm. In 1803, he built the Stuyvesant-Fish House at 21 Stuyvesant as a wedding gift to his daughter Elizabeth. For years the street was perhaps the most elegant in the city. With her husband Nicolas Fish, a Revolutionary War hero, Elizabeth entertained General Lafayette there in 1824.

Tim Wenskus, 38, senior forester with the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, said that during this period, exotic plants like the wisteria became a “must” for New York’s finest homes. “The biggest influx of nonnative species came at the turn of the century when formal Victorian-style gardens became popular,” he said. “Instead of showing off with your Lexus or S.U.V. it was, ‘I have plants from Madagascar in my garden.’ ”

When Lee Anderson moved into 35 Stuyvesant St. over a century later, fully aware of the street’s history, it seemed ironic that the residence where Lafayette was once entertained had become “a whorehouse.” Nearby, an elevated train cast its shadow over Third Ave. where drug dealers and prostitutes circulated.

“At first, my friends said, ‘It’s a terrible neighborhood, you can’t live there,’ ” he said. But Anderson has a talent for foreseeing the potential value of things. Once an art professor at Columbia University, he made his fortune collecting art, acquiring works of American artists like Winslow Homer and the mythic landscape paintings of the Hudson River School. When he planted his wisteria vines in 1958, it was part of Anderson’s efforts to return the street to its former splendor. “In the beginning there were some very bad kids in the neighborhood, and they tried to pull them up,” he said. Anderson had to replant the vines several times, but finally they took root — and the neighborhood began to flourish.

Today, the two enormous vines, their trunks nearly a foot in diameter, climb up the five-story facade, braiding their way through the wrought-iron balconies at each floor. Anderson, who has lost much of his sight in recent years, still speaks fondly of his wisteria’s purple flowers. “They were particularly beautiful last year,” he said. “And I think because of all the rain they’ll be even better this year.”

While for some the wisteria is but a dangerous, invasive nuisance, for others it has become as fundamental to the Village as the stone and mortar on which it climbs. For better or for worse, it seems the wisteria has woven its way into the very historic fabric of New York City.

For those interested in touring some of the Village’s notable wisteria vines, one might start with Lee Anderson’s two award-winning vines at 35 Stuyvesant St. The vine with sparser foliage was trimmed back during the on-site filming of the Sean Penn/Nicole Kidman movie “The Interpreter.” Visit 121 Waverly Pl. (between Sixth Ave. and Washington Square West) for a look at a huge five-story wisteria and its thick, tangled cascade of smaller vines. To see what happens when the vine grows unchecked, head west to 18 Gay St. — a row house completely engulfed by a wisteria. Several more large wisterias can be seen nearby on 13th and 11th Sts., between Sixth and Eighth Aves. You might finish your tour with a drink at the Bowery Bar at Fourth St. and Bowery, whose patio boasts a wisteria running along and spilling over its walls.

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