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EDITOR'S LETTER: Some Thoughts on Scientific Plant Names Brought on by a Very Large Vine.

Flyer from the Sierra Madre Chamber of Commerce.
No matter how you spell it, Wisteria or Wistaria, head to Sierra Madre, CA this March, if you can, to see the Guinness Book of World Records Vine!

By Karen England.

My parents were born in and I grew up to the age of 11 in Sierra Madre, California, a tiny, idyllic burg in Los Angeles County, the home of what the Guinness Book of World Records has named the World’s largest flowering plant, a behemoth, one acre sized, Wisteria sinensis, that the good people of Sierra Madre inscrutably decided to call Wistaria despite its scientific name.

Photo credit: Sierra Madre Chamber of Commerce.
Undated historical photo of the famous Sierra Madre vine from

I say inscrutably because my German grandfather, an apprenticed baker, who immigrated to America with his wife and the first of his 12 children in the early 1920's, settled in Sierra Madre where he worked his trade at the Wisteria Bakery, spelled thusly according to family records, until the 1930's when he switched careers and went into asphalt paving because it was "easier" than baking. The bakery, I'm told, was sold and renamed something non-botanical sometime later but is no longer. Anyway - somehow, sometime between 1894 when the vine was planted, and after my grandfather's era, up to today - the spelling of the famous vine in Sierra Madre was changed.

Lili Singer wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2014 about the famous Sierra Madre plant saying this,

"... consider the name Wisteria. Or was that “wistaria,” as the folks in Sierra Madre choose to call it? Here’s the scoop: The plant was named by Harvard’s British-born botanist Thomas Nuttall, to honor Philadelphia anatomy professor and Jefferson crony Dr. Casper Wistar. But when the official moniker was recorded, Wisteria was spelled with an E instead of an A. In scientific nomenclature, to avoid confusion, the first given name sticks. So everybody’s right: The correct botanical name is Wisteria, and wistaria is sometimes used as a common name."

When I trained for the Managing Editor position for this newsletter I was given a digital copy of the PROPER USAGE OF PLANT NAMES IN PUBLICATIONS, A Guide for Writers and Editors, by Kathy Musial, Huntington Botanical Gardens, August 2017, and I had hopes it might answer for me the question of is it Wisteria or Wistaria but alas, it does not. (Editor's note: If you'd like a copy of this Guide for yourself you can download it here: )

Photo credit: Karen England.
Karen England's beloved copy of Bill Neal's book, Gardener's Latin.

Also, I own a treasured copy of Bill Neal's 1992 book Gardener's Latin: a lexicon, and, although I love and use the book constantly, it also is supremely quiet with regard to Wisteria/wistaria nomenclature. Barbara Damrosch, in her introduction to the book wrote,

". . . are Latin plant names dry, absurdly polysyllabic nonsense spouted only by bumptious, long-winded overachievers? They are only if you don't know what they mean."

So, that said, please help a new garden society editor out and tell her what you think of Sierra Madre's decision to call the plant Wistaria?


Karen England is an enthusiastic albeit spectacularly mediocre herb, fruit and flower gardener located in Vista, CA. She has a very popular cat on her Instagram, @edgehillherbfarm, and, if you aren't allergic to internet cats, give her a follow and she and her cat will follow you back. She can be reached by email at and welcomes your comments and suggestions. About the newsletter . . .


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