The atmosphere in June is heavy with the scent of aliens, Privet, Multiflora Rose, and Honeysuckle. These intentionally introduced plants have taken over fallow fields, fencerows, and forest edges. As widespread as these troublesome plants are, it is hard to imagine a time when they were absent. No one thought, I’m sure, when these lovely plants were planted that they would become herbaceous dragons. When my grandfather first moved to Delaware shortly after 1900, they were basically unknown except in a garden setting.
Honeysuckles are the topic for this week. The honeysuckles that I am highlighting are the woody vines and shrubs in the family Caprifoliaceae (literally meaning goat foliage). I can verify from personal experience that goats do indeed love them as well as rabbits, groundhogs, and deer. Naturally as farm children we could not resist the sweet taste of the blooms either. More on that later.
The early 20th century farmers also referred to the Sweet Azalea-Rhododendron
canescens, (a member of the heath family) as “honeysuckle”. Hopefully you saw these beautiful shrubs blooming last month in Blair’s Pond Woods. My father used the term “honeysuckle” for the sweet smell of that shrub as well as the too familiar alien vine. Indeed, he was in good company since, William Taber, Delaware State Forester and author of the book Delaware Trees, refers to the wild Pink Azalea (Rhododendron nudiflorum as Mountain Honeysuckle and the Swamp Azalea (Rhododendron viscosum) as Swamp Honeysuckle.
Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) was introduced around 1900 as an ornamental and to stabilize road banks. “One of the worst plant pests yet introduced to Maryland” (Woody Plants of Maryland by Brown and Brown).
The Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora), a native of Asia, was used as rootstocks for grafting material and recommended for planting as windbreaks. I can remember when I studied agriculture in the mid 1950’s, it was still being promoted as a wind-break. The common Privet (Ligustrum vulgare), a native of Europe, has been cultivated since ancient times for hedge material. If shearing is stopped, the plants grow taller, flower, and set abundant seed that is widely spread by birds.
Japanese Honeysuckle is the more familiar of the two vining species, one native and one alien, growing on Nature Preserve lands. You will spot it along the borders of the meadows, trailside on the Lee and Morton properties, and beneath the powerlines. Typically, the flowers are white, fading to yellow with age, tubular, with irregular, recurving petals, and a powerful, sweet smell.
The stamens and pistil protrude from the corolla. It is very adaptable to all types of soil, quickly scrambling over, climbing trees and shrubs, and smothering everything else.
Occasionally you may come across a population of plants with pale to deep pink tubes and white petals. Even though they look somewhat different, they are just a color variation of the white form.
Japanese Honeysuckle stems can be woven into beautiful baskets. This was a popular summer camp craft activity for youth. Instructions can be found on-line.
Deeper into the forest you might find the native Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) with partially evergreen, smoother leaves and twigs.
On mature flowering stem tips, the leaves are united into a cup-like form (see photo).
The coral-red flower tubes are much longer than the Japanese, the petals much shorter, and nearly equal in spacing and size. The interior of the tube is typically yellow in the wild form. (Some all yellow and all red selections are offered by nurserymen). This lovely, native vine is in direct contrast to the aggressive aliens and should be encouraged and protected. Having evolved for millennia alongside the ruby-throated hummingbird, it is one of their favorite foods. My first experience with this vine was at home when my father planted one either side of the privacy arbor that led to our outhouse. Trumpet Honey- suckle is found along the Blair’s Pond Trail, Lindale Woods, and the Isaacs-Greene Tract. Hopefully you can check them out.
Recently a neighbor contacted me inquiring if there was a shrub that had honeysuckle flowers on it. He had found one of the Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) or other species. Widely planted as ornamentals and now escaping. They seem to prefer forested areas along streams, rivers, and ponds. I do not know of any growing on the Nature Preserve Lands, however they can be seen in forests in the Camden, Magnolia, Woodside area, and along the Nanticoke River near Bridgeville and Seaford.
There are several species listed in Brown and Brown: some native and some alien. I’m sure it is more widespread than I know about so if you encounter any, please let us know and we will document it. As I mentioned before, we treated ourselves to trailside sweet treats as children with Japanese Honeysuckle blooms. My granddaughter shared her expertise with a new and improved method and she's passing it along to you:
To extract the maximum amount of nectar, carefully pick a fully open flower. Use
your thumbnail to snip off the green calyx at the base. Carefully pull the thread-
like pistil downwards out of the corolla. There will be a drop of nectar at the tip
when it emerges. Don’t forget to suck the remaining nectar out of the tube, too. A
minuscule, sweet sip. Enjoy!
Have a safe outdoor experience. Stay hydrated, practice social distancing, use
sunscreen and insect/tick repellant.
Photos by the author.