Lessons of leadership I learned from my Wisteria vine

Wisteria vines are beautiful and imposing. They are the ones with the pendulous purple flowers in early spring that steal the spring show, then retreat to the background. If left untended they can become unruly, like rowdy teenagers. They can grow 40-50 feet in height and can take over trees and small structures. Yet if they’re cared for and pruned properly they can provide gorgeous spring color and much-needed summer shade. When their leaves fall in autumn they allow the sparkling winter sun to shine through. They’re the perfect plants to cover a large pergola.

My wisteria vines are still babies, yet they will ultimately outlive me. My role as their “teacher” is to coax the the tender young tendrils into the right positions on the pergola now so that when they turn older and woody they can provide the support for the new younger branches to form. Once I’ve given them the proper foundation, they can then take over the growing process and I can just direct them here and there on occasion.

Apparently young branches don’t do well when forced into a certain position. I learned that lesson the hard way. I thought that if I just tucked them under the pergola’s string lights they would learn to grow in the direction that I pointed them in. I was wrong. All of those young, vibrant, searching tendrils shriveled up and died.

So how do you train a wisteria to cover a pergola when the youngest branches die when you restrict them to a particular spot? It turns out that wisteria are curious and outgoing but want to be led. Those “unruly,” reaching tendrils are always searching for guidance, reaching for something solid to hang on to. If they find another branch they’ll start to entwine around each other and together they are able to support each other to aim higher.

I realized that what I needed to do was to just provide a gentle nudge and the wisteria vines would follow their natural tendencies. So I placed twine where I wanted to entice vines to explore. Sure enough, they found the guiding rope and started to follow. After one found the twine, so would another. Together they made a thick spiral of cooperating stems that boldly grew in the direction I was intending.

Aren’t the teachers always trying to guide the students to greatness? I realized that if I held on too tightly to “my ideal” of where I wanted the plant to go I would suffocate it and squelch its growth. But when I gently led the way with a suggestion, the power of the plant to respond and react blew me away. The vine is thriving.

Perhaps I will remember this when I try to encourage a patient to follow a whole-foods, plant based diet, or when I suggest strength training to my children, or when I recommend meditation to my colleagues and friends. Gentle guidance is more effective than strict control. Thank you, wisteria.