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Your once-a-year shot to see a freakishly large wisteria vine

Solt’s yard during 2016 Wistaria Festival in Sierra Madre, CA.
The record-setting plant during the 2016 Wistaria Festival in Sierra Madre.
(Susan Henderson )

Just one day each year, the world’s largest blossoming plant is open to the public –– and it’s right in our backyard.

Sierra Madre hosts its annual Wistaria Festival on March 18 (the festival favors the vine’s variant spelling). The city’s flowery claim to the planet’s “largest blossoming plant” is backed by Guinness World Records.

The plant dates to 1894, when homeowner Alice Brugman traveled by horse and buggy to a Monrovia nursery to buy the 75-cent vine, rooted in a 1-gallon container. She planted it next to her front porch, remarking to a neighbor, “They say wisteria grows fast,” according to Sierra Madre historian Phyllis Chapman.

Nearly a century and a quarter later, the vine-behemoth is said to weigh 250 tons and graces 1 acre, traveling across two homeowners’ backyards.

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Festivals celebrating the plant began 100 years ago, in 1918; the initial event was a war fundraiser. The celebrations grew, and in the 1930s lasted for weeks under a dedicated homeowner’s careful watch to make sure the plant was not harmed. Streetcars were added to handle the throngs. The famous attended, actresses Mary Pickford and Janet Leigh, and painter Normal Rockwell, among them. And yes, there was a Wistaria Queen, according to historians.

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Visitors pose in front of the famed plant in 1931.
(Sierra Madre Historical Archives )

By the mid 1940s the vine was overgrown and in poor shape. A new owner planned to chop it up, but protests spurred money for its care and preservation. Today, the wisteria is healthy and strong.

As for the festival, the annual bash had nearly wilted by the 1970s but was revived later in the decade. Various city organizations have sponsored the event; the city’s Chamber of Commerce now organizes the festival’s food, music and artisan activities.

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In 1972 Robert and Nel Solt bought the current 1962 home where the vine is rooted. (The prodigious plant crushed the original house in 1931.)

“We let it be –– it does take lots of trimming,” said Robert Solt, adding that the vine, supported with steel poles, is a few weeks behind its normal blooming schedule. Last year, festival timing was optimal, and the Instagram-ready wisteria was in full tilt prime, blasting out about 1.5 million blooms, and wafting its signature scent. Photos, but not cuttings, are encouraged.

The Solts unlock their gate for public, up-close viewing just one weekend a year.

Organizers encourage festival visitors — more than 5,000 are expected — to take a shuttle to the hillside property to avoid parking and traffic hassles. The proceeds benefit the chamber. The chamber usually hosts a two-day festival, but Saturday’s activities have been canceled because of expected wet grounds from rain.

As part of the festival, food trucks and artisan vendors will line the village’s streets, live blue jazz rock will play all day from Memorial Park’s bandshell, and 100 antique cars will be displayed on streets surrounding the park and City Hall.

2018 Sierra Madre Wistaria Festival

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 18

Where: Shuttles to the vine depart from the corner of North Baldwin and East Montecito avenues in Sierra Madre.

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Tickets: $7 for seniors and children, $12 for adults; eventbrite.com

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