It's wisteria blooming time here in Philadelphia! Every spring, these beautiful fragrant flowers flow down the woody climbing vines attached to many of our city’s cultural institutions. But sometimes a plant is more than just a pretty flower, as these vines have been winding through our history since English botanist Thomas Nuttall named it in the early 1800s. Part of the legume family, American wisteria is different from its Japanese counterparts, and with a very different history.
A cursory online search will inform you that Nuttall named the flowering vine in honor of American physician and anatomist Caspar Wistar (1761-1818). I have seen Caspar described as a “German botanist” but have no doubt this Caspar—sometimes referred to as “Caspar the Younger” to differentiate him from his immigrant grandfather Caspar Wistar (aka Hans Caspar Wüster)—is a member of one of the earlier generations of what would become a vast “Wüster” dynasty of American “revolutionaries.”
The grandfather, Caspar Wistar (1696-1752), was one of the earliest German colonists in Pennsylvania arriving in 1717. The grandfather’s brother Johannes (1708-1789) would arrive shortly after. And while both brothers arrived in Philadelphia as Wüsters, Caspar’s name was anglicized with an “ar” and his brother would become John Wister with an “er.” While only John would live long enough to see the American Revolution, neither of these brothers could have imagined the impact their family would have on the history of Philadelphia or the future United States of America and beyond.
While Caspar’s grandfather and father Richard (1727-1781) made their fortunes investing in land and revolutionizing the glassworks industry (Wistarburgh Glass) among other endeavors, Caspar (the younger) followed a different path studying medicine first at the University of Pennsylvania and then at the University of Edinburgh (1786). He is known for developing a set of anatomical models and publishing A System of Anatomy, as well as hosting “intellectual banquets” at this home on 4th Street in Philadelphia.
Thomas Nuttall spent time in Philadelphia and was part of a contingent of scientific-minded men who were involved with the planning of the Lewis & Clark Expedition among other research projects. Nuttall would have been well-acquainted with Caspar. It makes sense that Nuttall would name a plant after such a respected physician. Yet there are some who believe there is more to this story. Caspar’s cousin Charles Jones Wister (1782-1865), grandson of John Wister, was also on the scientific scene in Philadelphia. Charles taught courses on geology and minerology, and was an ardent student of botany. Known as an authority on the local flora, Charles took a keen interest in the cultivation of his family’s Germantown properties known as Wister Woods and Grumblethorpe (John Wister’s former summer home.) Like his cousin, Charles was a member of the American Philosophical Society, and was an early promoter of the sciences. Charles even built an Observatory at Grumblethorpe to study the stars. His son, C. J. (junior) would become an early experimenter with photography processes.
Charles Jones Wister would have been an important source for Nuttall as he studied the local landscape. So… might he have been the Wister who influenced the naming of the plant? Those in the “Charles camp” also point to the spelling Nuttall chose for the plant: Wisteria, not Wistaria. When asked about this, Nuttall had no explanation for why he chose that spelling.
The truth is we may never know the full story. But if we remember that cousins Caspar Wistar (the younger) and Charles J. Wister are indeed both members of the same family, it is safe to say that American wisteria was named after the American Wüster family. There are many well-known names contained within the Wistar/Wister family tree, many of whom are remembered through multiple “titles” including; lawyer, farmer, soldier, author, writer, scientist, philanthropist, preservationist, scientist, doctor, founder, social reformer, and more. The family represents 300 years of Philadelphia history. Here’s a few more names you might recognize:
Sally Wister (1706-1804) teenage American Revolution diarist
Isaac C. Jones Wistar (1827-1905) Civil War soldier, lawyer, penologist, and founder of the Wistar Institute
Owen Wister (1860-1938) Writer and “father” of western fiction, best known for The Virginian.
Frances Anne Wister (1874-1956) philanthropist, fundraiser, and preservationist, she is the founding matriarch of The Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks (PhilaLandmarks.)
It is in honor of Frances Anne that our wisteria blooms each year at the Powel House, and in honor of Charles Jones Wister that our wisteria at Grumblethorpe blooms. Just as the wisteria at the Wistar Institute blooms in honor of Caspar Wistar and Isaac C. Jones Wistar. Look around you... a wisteria flower will certainly catch your eye. But look a bit deeper. The vine may teach you something about the place it was planted.