In the Garden: Good Honeysuckle, Bad Honeysuckle

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Almost any Virginian, indeed almost any person living in the eastern United States, could probably identify the powerful, sweet smell that hangs in the air come May. Honeysuckle!  Or more specifically, Japanese Honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica. Despite the lovely smell and its value to some wildlife, this is one of the “Bad Honeysuckles.” Which honeysuckles are bad, which are good, and why?

Honeysuckles are members of the Caprifoliaceae family, also home to a few other familiar plants: Weigela, Abelia and Diervilla. The honeysuckles themselves comprise approximately 180 species, the majority of which are native to Asia, and that continent has provided us with most of the bad guys.

Plants from East Asia are particularly well suited to our part of the world owing to climatic similarities. Unfortunately, they arrive on our continent unaccompanied by their natural predators and diseases. They then have the potential to run amok, as exemplified by the Japanese Honeysuckle. Hardly a fencerow is without its twining presence. Even worse is its ability to creep into woodlands and smother native wildflowers. I’ve seen its surprisingly tough stems circling young trees and wondered if it could even girdle them. Overall, the battle against Japanese Honeysuckle is long lost, unless some natural predator can be found.  In the meantime, unless you have a very large property, it might be worth expending some effort to contain it.

There’re also some shrubby honeysuckles among the bad players. Morrow Honeysuckle (L. morrowii) can be invasive, but is more commonly seen up north. Amur Honeysuckle (L. maackii) has bright red fruits eaten and spread by birds; according to the Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora, it is “locally rampant” in the Commonwealth. Winter Honeysuckle (L. fragrantissima) is native to China and has not yet been declared to be invasive, but should be watched. A good-sized shrub, wonderfully fragrant flowers appear in winter to early spring.

Enough of the Bad Honeysuckles; there are many good guys out there also. A native vine, Trumpet Honeysuckle (L. sempervirens) can actually be hard to find in our woods, owing to the competition from its Japanese cousin. This honeysuckle’s new growth tends to be reddish purple, maturing to bluish green. Leaves toward the end of the stems clasp together, providing the effect of the flower emerging from the center of a single leaf. Non-fragrant, tubular flowers, red to orange-red with a yellow center, are beloved by hummingbirds.  There are at least six cultivars available, ‘Major Wheeler’ being one of the more popular. It tends to bloom for a longer period, and the foliage remains clean and disease-free, even during droughts. ‘John Clayton’ also maintains clean foliage, but has pale yellow flowers rather than red-orange. It was first found at Abingdon Church in Gloucester County, Virginia. Evenly moist, acid soils are best for Trumpet Honeysuckle, as well as the other species, although they will tolerate less-favorable conditions.

One good honeysuckle is not native, instead coming to us from Europe: Woodbine,

L. periclymenum. On the straight species, the fragrant flowers are yellowish-white with a purplish tinge, maturing to red fruits. Lazy S’S Farm Nursery in Barboursville declares this to be “the best [honeysuckle] for beauty and good behavior.” One of the five cultivars that Lazy S’S offers is ‘Scentsation’, with extremely fragrant yellow flowers that appear in mid- to late summer. ‘Belgica’ is early-flowering, the blooms reddish outside and white-pink-creamy yellow inside. These two plants would make a great combination for a long bloom season.

Yet another twining vine honeysuckles that one might try is Lonicera x tellmanniana, a hybrid that includes L. sempervirens as one of its parents. Large, almost fluorescent yellow-orange flowers sit above leaves that are much larger than other species.

There are a few Bush-honeysuckles that would be worth seeking out for your garden. Despite the common name, they are not true honeysuckles (Loniceras), but are members of the same family. The three species of Diervilla are all native to the Eastern U.S., either in the far north or in the southern Appalachians. Shrubs that generally top out at only 3’ to 5’ feet high and wide, they will spread slowly by suckers. Small, yellow flowers arrive in early to late summer, depending on the species. D. sessilifolia  ‘Butterfly’ has deep yellow flowers and glossy dark green foliage that turns purple in the fall. ‘Cool Splash’ is a smallish cultivar, only 2’-3’ feet tall and a bit wider. Foliage is slightly cup-shaped, with a broad cream-colored margin. The Georgia Bush-honeysuckle (D. rivularis) can be found in at least a couple of interesting cultivars. ‘Kodiak Black’ has intense burgundy-black foliage in spring and fall.  ‘Troja Black’s foliage goes from burgundy-bronze in spring, to green in summer and to red in the fall. Tough plants that do well in sun or part-shade, Diervillas are also drought-tolerant once established. Once they have been in the ground a couple of years, they should be cut back hard each spring.

Plants in the Caprifoliaceae family can be mildly poisonous—except for the nectar you sucked from Japanese honeysuckle as a kid, of course—thereby accounting for their alleged deer-resistance. And as always is the case with deer, there are no guarantees.

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