The Flower that Ate the Pines

All my life, I’ve heard that the vine that ate the South was a little […]

All my life, I’ve heard that the vine that ate the South was a little leafy plant called kudzu. Not so in March in Macon, Georgia. The bearer of that titled crown is a brilliantly blooming flower known as wisteria.

Growing up in the South, I’ve always loved—and impatiently awaited—spring’s blossoming entrance onto the stage. The bare backdrop of winter begins to give way in late February and early March to a few glorious days of sunshine, scattered here and there among the calendar pages, before a particularly brutal morning reminds us that no, sadly, it is not yet summer. But by the end of March, the middays are getting warmer, the sun shines for longer, and the flowers are making their presence known in a vast array of pinks and purples and creams. For some of us, this inevitably leads to the puffy eyes and swollen noses of pollen season, and in Macon, especially, this time of year heralds a thick coat of yellow on almost every conceivable object. Even my iPhone screen collects pollen as it sits beside me on the porch steps. The rest of the time, however, I am walking around my neighborhood with a heady (and perhaps pollen-drunk) sense of joy as I watch the almost-overnight flowering of the town around me. Pink azalea cups burst out of squat, brilliantly green bushes, and cherry blossom trees gracefully bow their branches of snowflake petals over the road. The birds and the bees and the leaves have gloriously come back from the dead of winter in the annual miracle that is the resurrection of spring. I barely even mind the lizard who suns himself on my windowsill.

Perhaps my favorite moment of this spring was when I awoke to find the porch railings outside my bedroom window of the house I am renting draped in the luscious purple petals of the wisteria vine. I was so entranced by their richness that I began to think of how I could incorporate them in my latest embroidery project, or whether there was a way to bring a cutting inside for table decorations. I even considered breaking out the watercolors (mercifully, I restrained myself—schoolteachers are too busy for side projects). Instead I came home each afternoon to the lovely lavender color, glowing in the setting sunlight.

I’ve known, of course, that vines can be a difficult thing to control. My mother loves southern jasmine, and the soft perfume of those flowers covered the front porch railing of our childhood home until it was lost, sadly, in the saltwater flooding of a particularly bad hurricane season. The delicate tendrils of that vine always seemed to be reaching out—not to grab you, necessarily, but perhaps to reassure you—as my sister and I raced up and down the steps of our childhood. Further down the block, there was an abandoned lot, since bulldozed and rebuilt upon, where a small house was barely visible through thicket upon thicket of overgrown bushes and vines and, alluringly to us, honeysuckle flowers. We used to collect grocery bags full of the sweet flowers and carry them back to our house, where we sat beside the jasmine and sucked honey from a bloom which, if you bit it in the wrong place, could fill your mouth with bitterness. Driving north on Interstate 95 to visit my grandparents in North Carolina, I would stare out of the car window at gargantuan forests of kudzu-laden trees, too big perhaps to accurately describe. My mother would tell us about the kudzu, how it is an invasive species, how it has no natural predator and cannot be controlled. Later on in school, when we learned about the chestnut blight and the invasive fungus responsible for destroying perhaps four million chestnut trees in America in the early 1900s, I thought of the kudzu and its iron grip on the roadways of the South.

As I drove around Macon this week, car windows down and radio up, I began to notice the gorgeous abundance of the wisteria around town. The flowers adorned porch railings and bushes, telephone poles and telephone wires, and seemed to stretch from downtown all the way out Highway 41 and onward. I think the heavily-laden telephone wires caused my first double-take, but it was perhaps the tall dead tree in a neighbor’s yard which suddenly flowered in its topmost branches with brilliant purple that caused me to sit up and stare.

The more that I’ve looked at the lovely mass of small and dainty flowers on my back porch, the more that I’ve noticed that underneath the sweetness are thick, gnarled, knotty trunks of vine that are slowly splintering the porch railings within their coils. A quick Google search and Wikipedia read-through will tell you that wisteria is also an invasive species that not only will grow wherever its tendrils can reach but will brutally strangle any tree that it gets in a chokehold. The wisteria of Macon bears evidence to this. Large pockets of Georgia pine trees, which Margaret Mitchell so aptly described as “the virgin forests, dark and cool even in the hottest noons, mysterious, a little sinister, the soughing pines seeming to wait with an age-old patience, to threaten with soft sights: ‘Be careful! Be careful! We had you once. We can take you back again,’” are no longer the same soughing, whispering pines. Within their midst, inevitably, one tree stands alone, stark and black against the sky, with the highest branches, free from verdant needles, draped in lavender blooms. The sinister quality of the virgin Southern forest has given way to an all-but invisible treachery, draped in the mantle of spring’s glory.

And what are we to do with this vicious, glorious beauty? The Internet, that great bastion of wisdom, has an abundance of articles on how to control wisteria, how to properly plant wisteria, how to prune wisteria, and I’m grateful that that’s so. Other than the cherry blossom trees—to which Macon dedicates an entire festival week each year—the wisteria blossoms are some of the most vibrant and beautiful colors of this time of year. Like the kudzu, and perhaps more easily because of its beauty, it seems all there is to do is to sit back and watch the wisteria grow.

As a young playwright, William Shakespeare was fascinated with the idea of duality, or the condition of containing opposing forces within one’s self. We see it most flourishingly on display in his early play that has “much to do with hate, but more with love,” the tragic and ill-fated romance of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. The character of Friar Laurence, the wise, fatherly priest, is an enigmatic one. Despite frequent cautions against impatience and hastiness, he still agrees to marry Romeo to Juliet within a day of their first meeting and to help Juliet plot a mad-dash escape from an arranged marriage, which ultimately ends in the lovers’ untimely deaths. When Friar Laurence first appears on stage, he arrives at the moment in which the play is building to its climax. He is alone, apparently out gathering herbs in the early dawn light, and he begins to wax philosophical on the duality of nature:

The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb,
What is her burying grave that is her womb.

As he continues to collect flowers, his soliloquy builds in its narrative connection:

Within the infant rind of this sweet flower
Poison hath residence and medicine power…
Two such opposed kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will.

The comparison of earth (both a tomb and a womb) to flowers and mankind serves to heighten this idea that, just as the flower can be both medicinal and poisonous, so mankind also contains within itself both the grace of goodness and the rude will of the selfish soul. Shakespeare goes on to famously explore these themes by comparing Romeo and Juliet not only to flowers (“a rose by any other name…”) but also the instruments with which they end their lives to medicine. Romeo calls his vial of poison a “cordial,” and Juliet seeks a “remedy” in Romeo’s dagger. A story that on its surface seems to careen towards tragedy is also a carefully-crafted exploration of the inherent dangers and inherent goodness within all of the natural world, man as well as herbs.

This idea that all of nature has within it both pain and beauty is nowhere more evident this time of year than in the wisteria vines. The strangling nature of the vine belies the beauty of the blossoms, and the bright hues of lavender belie the destructive spirit of the vine. The wildness of that beautiful destruction brings to mind the verse in Jeremiah: “I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?” (2:21). Just as the local gardener cannot contain the pollen of his diligently cultivated wisteria, so the carefully cultivated man cannot keep out the seeds of wildness that sin so often sows. In its madness, in its degeneracy, and in its overwhelming splendor, the wisteria spreads its way throughout the South. There is no part of the vine that is entirely beautiful and no part of the vine that is entirely destructive. In the wildness of the world, the wisteria is neither wholly good nor wholly evil, and it is all the more majestic, complex, saddening, and human for it.

As I sit on my porch, as the shadows lengthen and the sun dips below the treeline, I watch several bumblebees hover over the wisteria flowers. I know that their small, furry bodies will carry the pollen of the wisteria to neighboring yards, to neighboring railings, to neighboring woods. Even if I could stop them, even if I could catch the bees in a jar and rip up the vine at its roots, I don’t know that I would. In the end, I can only sit and watch and hope that it is the bloom’s beauty that the bees take away, that it is the bloom’s beauty that spreads, and that, for all of us, there comes a day when we invite the Lord of the vineyard into our wilderness, when He cleanses us of our strangling vines, washes our brutal hands, and, in the words of another prophet, drapes us in His own royal purple robe of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10-11).