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Question Mark and the Wisterians
updated: Mar 27, 2009, 12:00 AM

Thoughts From the Garden of Ed

Question Mark and the Wisterians
by Billy Goodnick

I'm not sure which I saw more of this past year—political ads warning that Barack Obama was an Islamic, communist foreigner or public service announcements about the switch from analog TV to digital. It made me wonder just how many people still get their daily dose of media from an antenna on the roof.

Not in my home; we have cable! That's why I'm such an intellectual force to be reckoned with. I have at my fingertips access to in-depth research tools like the Hallmark channel where I learn about what makes women tick, the Speed network for developments in dirt bike oil filters and the History Channel (it's not just about Hitler, anymore).

But I've yet to see a documentary on the ancient migratory trail of the Wisterians, who evidently passed through Santa Barbara, leaving only a cryptic trace. Without a reliable TV show to supplement my own research, I can only conjecture that the Wisterians appeared about 14,000 years ago, but were out-completed by the Clovis civilization. Or maybe the Clovis folks just had a better PR machine.

Back to the Wisterians. They must have been a gentle people as evidenced by their love of sweet smelling, pastel colored vines. If the technology had been a bit more advanced in their day, I like to think they would have invented maps and GPS systems.

"Why Professor Goodnick," you challenge incredulously, "with what evidence do you support your hypothesis?"

Fair question. You know how in the first Indiana Jones movie he finds that metal thingy, puts it on top of a stick and on just the right day at just the right time the sun shines through and illuminates the secret location of the Ark of the Covenant? It's like that, except instead of calculating sun angles and seasons, the math-phobic Wisterians planted wisteria vines along their migratory route to mark their path.

How else do you explain the sprawling purple vines currently blooming along southbound Highway 101, near the car dealerships? Like Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs, those clever Wisterians turned their love of plants and cool colors into a pre-GPS way-finding technology. Of course, if they tried to find their way back at any other time of the year, they'd be righteously screwed. No flowers, bummer.

As any seasoned researcher knows, you have to test alternative theories before you can declare the discovery of a new unknown civilization. Those are the rigors of academia. So I called Martin Sanchez, regional superintendent for Caltrans.

"Did you guys plant the wisteria?" I asked.

"Nope, they've been there forever," came his unhesitating reply. Hmmmm, "forever" or maybe only 14,000 years? The pieces were falling into place.

"Did you guys intentionally leave the vines when you did that major clean-up a few months ago?" I had noticed a mass pruning of the landscaped strip between Modoc Road and the freeway in early fall and my heart sank. I imagined that some insensitive Caltrans bureaucrat had had enough of this rampant climber and sent out their ninja chainsaw assassins. But the wisteria survives, diminished but charging back to its former glory.

Explaining Caltrans' roadside maintenance protocol (his word, not mine) he told me, "If it's part of the original design, we leave it. If it's not causing problems, we leave it. If it contributes to screening, we leave it. If it encroaches, it's gone."

He didn't know who had planted the original vine, doubting it would have been included in the original freeway landscape plan. Which proves my theory conclusively: If Caltrans didn't plant it, these profuse grape-like clusters of fragrant flowers MUST be the legendary Lost Vine of the Wisterians.

There are two common species in "the trade"—the purple-flowering Wisteria floribunda, and the white-flowering Wisteria sinensis. "Sinensis" is bot-speak for "Chinese." This connection is intriguing and might require deeper digging—perhaps the Wisterians traveled across the Pacific in search of a better life, swinging on the strong, flexible strands of their namesake vine. We'll go with that, since you're probably eager to know how to grow this beauty.

Buy a wisteria at the nursery, dig a hole and set the dirty part of the plant in the hole. Put back some of the dirt you took out. As long as the plant gets at least a half-day of direct sun and is kept moderately moist for a few growing seasons, you're cruising. Give the plant a stout trellis to hang onto since the twining stems can get as big around as your wrist. It loses its leaves in the winter, letting light into nearby rooms, then shades the house when it leafs out in spring.

So, I hope I've learned something from my vast plant knowledge and in-depth research. You can see why I'm a recognized expert in all things landscape and am envied by real anthropologists. I might not have a bunch of scholarly abbreviations after my name, but I do have cable.

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Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.


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