One of the biggest debates among plant lovers right now is the presence of invasive species. Yes, that’s a debate! Like so many things that the media has grabbed a hold of, the story of invasives includes the big bad wolf (the invasive plant), grandmother and Little Red (the animals and plants who are getting pushed out of their habitats by invasives) and the hero (invasive species removal).
Like all things in nature our struggle with invasive species is infinitely more complicated than what it seems on the surface. Without delving too deeply there are some spiritual plant-folks out there who say that invasive species come to areas where they are needed. This ignores the fact that humans are responsible for the spread of certain species, but for example, Japanese Knotweed is known in healing circles for its use against the symptoms of Lyme Disease. Where is Japanese Knotweed spreading? Anywhere that Lyme disease is endemic. Phragmites is known for creating dense root mats which stabilize soil, where can we find it setting out its dastardly roots which choke out native species? In our freshwater marshes, beyond the tidal line, which are receding at unprecedented rates, year after year due to sea level rise. These are just two examples, quickly, of the arguments people make about invasives.
Personally, like most things, I believe the answer lies somewhere on the middle path. And no doubt – if the plants are here to be used and using them (even if only on a personal level) can help control their spread, then that’s just what I’ll do.
Today, for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on my efforts to control and use wisteria.
Wisteria is the most abundant nonnative species thriving in my backyard. My meager attempts to get it under control have shown me what I’m in for – a lifetime of management. Unlike Japanese Knotweed and Phragmites, I’m not sure what the prevailing arguments are for the beneficial uses of wisteria, but in my own experience with it I have found a likely permanent, sustainable source for basketry materials.
Harvesting and Weaving With Wisteria
Harvesting is simple, though it’s often a little frustrating because wisteria vines can grow up to 70 feet long and 10 inches thick! Some basket makers say that you can harvest wisteria any time of year, however if you are sensitive to the plant compounds in wisteria (ie – they give you a rash) then you’ll want to wait until winter.
To cut I simply use garden pruners. Loppers, or even a strong pair of kitchen scissors will also suffice. Sharp and strong is the key as you’ll make most cuts nearer to the base of the plant, where the vine will be widest. Vines which don’t dramatically vary in width are best, and I personally choose to harvest vines which are ½ inch in diameter or less – because I don’t want to do much more processing than just the harvesting and basket-making. However vines of any width can be used for basketry. Very wide and unyielding pieces can be split, or used to frame the basket shape. Even the bark itself is useful! Wisteria bark makes a great lashing material. It can be pulled off the green vines, or boiled off. Use it as an all natural twine wherever you’re using twine in the garden!
Speaking of boiling, once harvested wisteria is super forgiving about how it is treated. Coiling and leaving it in a dry place is perfectly acceptable treatment – though some suggest that you immediately boil any woody vines to remove insects and the bark. No matter which route you choose, the humidity of your material is one of the most the most important concepts in basketry. Weaving materials that have not been sufficiently dried can cause open spots and flimsiness in your finished product. Materials that are too dry will crack. This is where wisteria has another leg up, as there are many folks who weave with it while it is still “green” – meaning it hasn’t been dried at all. This is because wisteria doesn’t retain very much residual moisture, especially if harvesting in winter. Still, even a short period of drying will ensure the best basket you can make. This will be especially true if you are harvesting in the spring, when sap levels are highest, or after a rain or snow in winter.
Wrapping up Wisteria
Because wisteria is going to be part of the long term management of my garden here at the “new” place it was important to me that my solution was environmentally sound over the course of the next 30+ years. So many websites advocated the use of small amounts of brushed-on glyphosate to combat wisteria, and I can see why so many well-intentioned and sustainably-minded folks would jump on that wagon. This plant is relentless! I’m hoping that as we adapt to plants like wisteria, knotweed and phragmites in our environments, that we’ll find more and more uses for them – creating outlets for more robust control. In the meantime I’m doing my best to use the materials I have on hand, for what I need.