Thursday, 5 July 2018

Joining in wisteria hysteria
in Cambridge in the courts
of Sidney Sussex College

Fading wisteria and the rule of bicycles at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen views)

Patrick Comerford

When the students leave Cambridge at the end of the academic year, the tourists and the participants at summer schools take over the streets and the college rooms. But for these few weeks at the end of June and the beginning of July, Cambridge remains the city of wisteria and bicycles.

Cambridge is the city of bicycles. Although term has come to end, bicycles still have priority over cars and pedestrians on the streets, and they are still chained in vast numbers to the rails of colleges, chapels and churches, where they join the many posters advertising music, recitals, concerts, theatre, drama and readings.

But Cambridge is equally the city of wisteria. Although the best time for appreciating wisteria in Cambridge is usually in May, it still survives in many places throughout the city into July.

On my way to and from USPG conferences in High Leigh, I have tried to take a little time to visit interesting towns and places within an easy distance of Stansted Airport and Hoddesdon. In past years, these have included Saffron Walden, Bishop’s Stortford, Newport, the neighbouring towns of Hoddesdon and Broxbourne, Dobbs Weir and Roydon, and, of course Cambridge. As I am not attending the IOCS summer school in Sidney Sussex College later this summer, I decided to spend a little time in Cambridge this week, and, of course, I succumbed to wisteria hysteria in Cambridge during my all-too-short visit this week.

Wisteria covers college walls, pretty cottages, terraced houses, and even appears on student accommodation throughout Cambridge. For outsiders, it creeps along the walls of Chapel Court in Sidney Sussex College, its vines dripping over onto Sidney Street. But for insiders, it can still be seen in bright foliage throughout Chapel Court, Hall Court and Cloister Court.

But then, of course, I have a particular fondness for the wisteria in Sidney Sussex.

The wisteria is already fading in Hall Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Wisteria is a genus of flowering plants in the legume family, Fabaceae (Leguminosae), that includes ten species of woody climbing vines that are native to China, Korea and Japan.

So where did wisteria get its name?

The English botanist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) said he named Wisteria in honour of the American physician and anatomist, Dr Caspar Wistar (1761-1818). Caspar Wistar was born in Philadelphia, the son of Richard Wistar (1727-1781) and Sarah Wyatt (1733-1771), and the grandson of Caspar Wistar (1696-1752), a German immigrant Quaker and glassmaker.

Caspar Wistar was educated at the Quaker school in Philadelphia, and studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Edinburgh. He returned to Philadelphia, where he became s professor of chemistry, professor of anatomy, midwifery, and surgery and later professor of anatomy. He was an early promoter of vaccination, campaigned for the abolition of slavery and was a friend of Thomas Jefferson.

Some writers have preferred spelling the plant’s common name as ‘wistaria’, and Fowler’s Dictionary continues to use the spelling ‘wistaria.’

The Porter’s Lodge in Sidney Sussex College this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

This spelling is also used by TS Eliot in ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ (1918/1919):

Therefore the man with heavy eyes
Declines the gambit, shows fatigue,

Leaves the room and reappears
Outside the window, leaning in,
Branches of wistaria
Circumscribe a golden grin;

The host with someone indistinct
Converses at the door apart,
The nightingales are singing near
The Convent of the Sacred Heart


By now, the wisteria in Sidney Sussex has passed its best this year, yet there are still many buds on the vines. But I regret that on my way to and from the USPG conference in High Leigh I still did not have a little more time to spend in the sunshine in Cambridge this week.

Bicycles and posters compete with each other on railings in Cambridge this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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