The MANY Faces of Honeysuckle
Q. My wife had a black chain link fence installed to contain our two dogs. I think it looks God awful and want to cover it with something. My parents have been singing the praises of honeysuckle and just about had me convinced—until one of my coworkers rolled her eyes at me and explained that her honeysuckle had gone berserk and was now strangling all the other plants in her yard. So—who's right?
- ---Justin in Roxborough, PA
I grew up in Northern New Jersey in the 1950s; a friend grew up in eastern PA in the 1970s. We both remember a honeysuckle that, when you pulled off the flower & sucked the end, you got a drop of nectar. The dreaded L. japonica doesn't look like what we remember; and I don't recall "our honeysuckle" as being invasive. I remember the flowers being white & yellow. Do you have any idea which honeysuckle this could be? We both want to plant it. Thanks!
- ---Karen, now in Perkasie, PA
A. The honeysuckle genus (Lonicera) ["Lon-iss-er-a"] is enormous, with 180 naturally occurring species and a dizzying number of hybrids. Most honeysuckles are vines, although a few are shrubs. Most are reliably winter hardy, although a few, like the prized giant Burmese honeysuckle, are purely tropical. Many are fragrant; some have no scent at all. The flowers can be white, yellow, a combination of white and yellow or a bright red that is among the best attractors of hummingbirds.
The honeysuckle that triggers intense childhood memories of fragrance and flower sucking, and the one that is by far the most invasive member of the family is L. japonica, the beloved and despised Japanese honeysuckle. Often referred to as "Hall's honeysuckle" after the most famous cultivar, its flowers open up white, age to yellow and contain so much nectar that you can get a pretty good sugar rush sucking flowers during the blooming season. If you are overwhelmed by an outdoor fragrance in the early summer so heady it makes you weak in the knees, it's probably Japanese honeysuckle.
And if you have sent me a panicked email or made a frantic phone call about a vine from hell taking over your entire neighborhood, it's probably Japanese honeysuckle. This vine is a rampant grower, spreads both underground and above ground by shoots 'tip rooting' in the soil, and by producing berries that are very attractive to birds, who avidly consume and then replant them a while later. Oh; and look—they fertilized it too!
Many garden writers have a love/hate relationship with the plant, officially despising it while occasionally admitting that the fragrance and nectar are unparalleled. In the end, however, it is SO invasive that you have to tell people not to plant it. (Although you generally don't have to actually plant it to have it; Lady japonica showed up on my backyard 'dog fence' a decade ago and persists despite my yearly cutting it back.)
But you can still plant 'a honeysuckle' to cover a fence; just choose one of the many, non-invasive species—some of which are nicely fragrant. Back when I was the editor of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine, writer Jeff Cox explained in an article on flowering vines that the "luscious woodbine" extolled by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream was actually the woodbine honeysuckle (L. periclymenum ), a sweet smelling European native that is much better behaved than its Asian cousin. There are a large number of named varieties, all of which are wonderfully ornamental.
In a classic book on the subject, "Armitage's Vines & Climbers", University of Georgia Professor Allan Armitage recommends Gold flame (Lonicera x heckrottii), a hybrid honeysuckle whose deep red flowers open to yellow, with a scent that is "pleasant, but will not knock you over". He also likes the native American Trumpet honeysuckle (L. sempervirens ), whose red tubular flowers are legendary hummingbird magnets. Although a few gardeners have reported fragrance from this species (mostly in blogs on the Internet), Armitage and other experts say it is not fragrant—and the tireless researchers at the famed library of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society agree. But Armitage (and many others) otherwise highly recommend it as a well-behaved and very ornamental flowering vine.
Italian honeysuckle (L. caprifolium) is heavily scented, its yellow flowers are tinged with pink, and the berries that follow are orange and highly ornamental. Lonicera x americana (in plant names an x in the middle defines a hybrid variety) would seem to be at least half native, but it's actually a cross between two European varieties (go figure). Its heavily scented flowers are yellow flushed with a reddish purple.
And that's just the tip of the honeysuckle iceberg. The short answer (as if I could ever deliver a short answer) is that the honeysuckle of remembered youth is probably japonica, and it is invasive. (Armitage, who greatly admires the look and scent, is finally forced to conclude that "there are [just] too many reasons to stay away from this plant." )
But that leaves dozens of well-behaved cousins with intoxicating color and/or fragrance and/or hummingbird attraction for you to choose from; just pick the non-invasive variety that has the characteristics you require.
And if you should happen to stumble onto a clump of Lady japonica in full bloom in the woods, feel free to suck all the sweet nectar you want. Just leave the pruners at home….