Wistful wisteria

Water features were mastered by Italian designers at Villa d' Este, about 45 minutes outside of Rome. Photos by Peggy Harris

Malibu Garden Column/Peggy Harris

When a gardener can take a moment for wistful reflection under a spring-blooming wisteria vine, he or she has usually achieved a high level of garden satisfaction. Requiring a strong supportive arbor, a mature wisteria vine makes a statement of permanence. The deciduous wisteria belongs to the pea family, now labeled Fabaceae (formerly Leguminoseae). Its pendulous bloom, usually an iridescent lilac blue (though white and pink varieties are now available), begins its spectacular show in March. Some years this has been short-lived in Malibu gardens. This year, with record rainfall and cool conditions in winter, the display will most likely last well into summer. A homeowner with a mature, twisted woody wisteria knows permanence and patience. Sometimes, wisteria doesn’t bloom for the first 10 to 15 years! It has been said that gardeners who have wonderful gardens do not sell their homes. They usually have imagination, patience and persistence enough to make their garden dreams into reality. The most successful landscape is the one that answers the owner’s personal needs.

The “wistful” wishing mentality affects the homeowner when he reflects on his satisfaction with his garden. Whether the landscaping is self-designed or professionally crafted, the closer the garden comes to fulfilling the needs of the homeowner, the better the garden. Most homeowners are seeking a confluence of aesthetically pleasing, healthy and maintainable gardens.

Historically, great advances in garden design are credited to visions, “wistful” thoughts of garden designers combined with the sometimes ambitions plots of landowners. There is an interesting tale of how wishes, greed and desire combined to help create the gardens at Versailles. Garden designers in the 1600s in France were trying to emulate and outdo what the Italians had successfully created at Villa d’Este outside Rome.

Nicolas Fouquet, minister of finance to King Louis XIV, commissioned Andre LeNotre, son of the head gardener at the Jardin de Tuileries, painter Charles Le Brun and architect Louis Le Vau to design a garden for his own estate at Vaux le Vicomte. This creative team began to design, in 1656, an Italian-style garden with French influence. The 1600s were an important time when France was emerging from an era when estates had to be surrounded by moats and protected by walls. Although Vaux lacked the hills needed for elevation changes mastered so well by the Italians at Villa d’Este, the aim was to create an impressive garden, filled with interesting water features and surprises. Water features at the time were all run by gravity, collecting water and releasing it at the right moment to impress visitors. There was a frantic rush to have the massive project ready by 1661 for a grand theatrical party to present the magnificent garden. The guest of honor was, of course, the great King Louis XIV.

The opening party impressed the 23-year-old monarch, but, to Fouquet’s surprise, the king reacted by having his finance minister arrested and sent to jail. The accusation of stealing money from the monarchy was trumped up after Louis XIV’s envy was aroused from viewing the gardens at Vaux le Vicomte. After several staged trials, monsieur Fouquet was condemned to prison where he died in 1680.

Louis XIV desired to have the most magnificent garden in France. He hired the design team of le Notre, Le Burn, and Le Vau and the French garden designer, Claude Mollet. The assignment was to make the swampland behind the former hunting lodge at Versailles bigger and better than Vaux le Vicomte. Seven years later, Louis XIV began to really improve the residence outside of Paris where he had moved his palace. The palace and gardens at Versailles stand as a testament to King Louis XIV, self-proclaimed le Roi Soleil, the Sun God. The fate of the finance minister stands as a testament to what extremes people, in this case Louis XIV, will go for satisfaction of their “wistful” longing to have the best.

Fortunately, the gardens at Vaux le Vicomte have remained in good condition and are open for visitation. Vaux has been termed a jewel of landscape design. It is considered the more delicate and remarkable display of aristocratic restraint, unlike the opulent display at Versailles.

Trends in home landscape design are moving away from the cottage garden, English rose style of a decade ago and toward more architectural forms for the future. In design, order and unity are as important as the need to break from them and add variety. With the deluge of design possibilities from which to derive inspiration, the well-planned landscape containing order and interest will usually provide great satisfaction for the homeowner. The person who can reflect under a mature, blooming wisteria this coming spring should consider himself very fortunate. Although the name wisteria actually comes from a professor of anatomy, Caspar Wistar (1791-1818), from the University of Pennsylvania, the vine has inspired many a poet. And the need to dream of future landscapes will never subside for the wistful gardener.

Peggy Harris can be reached at P.M. Harris Landscape Design, pmhdesign@adelphia.net