“Wistaria Hysteria Blossoms” for Beacon Media Newspapers

April 2008

The wistaria vine, popular in Sierra Madre long before the drama of “Desperate Housewives” on Wisteria Lane (both spellings are acceptable), was celebrated again Sunday at the 2008 Sierra Madre Wistaria Festival.

About five to six thousand people flock to the streets of Sierra Madre each year to eat food like fresh kettle corn and browse the over 170 booths of paintings, jewelry, clothing and other handmade items as well as tour the two backyards where the famous one acre lavender wistaria vine that can weigh as much as 250 tons grows.

Usually the event raises about $40,000 and provides a good portion of the budget for the Chamber of Commerce, said Mayor Enid Joffe. Beverly DeVoy, executive director of the Sierra Madre Chamber of Commerce does not know yet how many people attended and how much money was raised but she said “we’ve heard from many vendors that this is the best year they’ve had. The rain slowed it down a little bit but people wanted to come and brought umbrellas.”

Six music stages, one more than last year, had live performances throughout the day, including harp, dulcimer and classical guitar music at the wistaria vine, which is mostly a blanket of flowers overhead that exude a gardenia-like fragrance.

Sierra Madre’s wistaria craze began in 1894 when Alice Brugman bought a gallon can of wistaria for 75 cents to enhance her new Sierra Madre home, according to historian Phyllis Chapman. The vine grew from there, needing trellises for support and even destroying a home and causing the roof to collapse many decades ago, but it now takes up two properties and is cared for by homeowners Bob and Nel Solt and Dan and Dana Dorrance.

In 1918, the Fennel family opened the vine to the Sierra Madre Chapter of the Red Cross, which sponsored a successful fundraiser that 12,000 people attended to help the war effort, according to Chapman, and since then some form of a festival has taken place.

Nel Solt could not say how much she and her husband spend taking care of the vine, though at this point it does not need to be watered and needs some trimming in the early summer, she said. In the past, the Chamber of Commerce hired arborists to take care of the plant and even inject it with hormones, but it is now solely up to the Solts and Dorrances to take care of any expenses.

Joffe said taking care of the wistaria vine is completely voluntary on the part of the homeowners and they could hypothetically destroy it if they wish.

“I think you’d have pickets outside though,” said Joffe. “When someone buys the house they’re buying the responsibility of the vine. I don’t know if it would be Sierra Madre without the wistaria.”

“It’s a tremendous feeling of power,” joked Nel Solt, who said that the thousands of people who tour the wistaria vine in her backyard each year have been respectful in general.

“I’ve never had anything broken,” said Solt. “Maybe one little potted plant.”

The Sierra Madre wistaria vine is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest blossoming plant and it is known as one of the seven horticultural wonders of the world, but not everyone is as impressed.

“It’s beautiful and smells wonderful but I think it’s grossly overrated,” said Sierra Madre resident Daniel Pawley. “I’ve been to some of the other horticultural wonders and it doesn’t really compare.”

Due to Easter and Palm Sunday being earlier than usual this year, the festival was pushed back a couple weeks, but it will be held on March 15th next year and DeVoy thinks there will be even more blooms on the vine.

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