Native Honeysuckles

Flower clusters of the Bush Honeysuckle. Photo by Roy Lukes.

It’s amazing how some plants can quite magically appear virtually out of nowhere, especially when the ground and native plants have been disturbed. One I came to learn about and admire is the Strawberry Blite.

No sooner had we broken ground to build our house in the woods 29 years ago when some of these brilliant red strawberry fruit-like plants began to grow. A year or two later they were gone and we haven’t seen them here since. Apparently their seeds can lie dormant for many years and still be viable.

Our friend Karen Wilson told me that the seeds of the beautiful Allegheny Vine, which we found growing on Rock Island, can also remain dormant for a long time when, with a little disturbance, they begin to grow and to flower. Then, unannounced, a few years later many disappear.

The bank of glacial moraine ground east of our house has had plenty of disturbances in recent years and we’re trying to get plants other than aggressive weeds to grow there. Last summer I built a winding staircase leading up the middle of the slope, removed many large glacially-deposited boulders and also moved a lot of ground around. This summer there is a virtual jungle of many dozens of four to five-feet-tall Daisy Fleabane plants, Erigeron annus, that hadn’t been growing there for the past 29 years. They’re not all that bad but aren’t what we had in mind to have inhabiting that difficult spot, so now we have a decision to make.

My friend, Clifford Orsted, former junior high science student of mine and now owner of Door Landscaping, suggested early last summer that we consider a few dozen native Bush Honeysuckle shrubs, Diervilla lonicera (deer-VIL-la lon-i-SEAR-a), on the steep part of our east bank. One of his planting crews soon had the work accomplished and by this mid-July these tough perennials are 24 – 30 inches tall, in full flower and doing very well.

As I mentioned, the Bush Honeysuckle is native. Otherwise you wouldn’t find Orsted handling them in his business, which stresses “go native.” As soon as many people even so much as hear the word honeysuckle they don’t want to have anything to do with them, and rightly so. Perhaps, like us, they bought some property that already had plenty of the “bad guys” growing there, such as the Tartarian Honeysuckle or Japanese Honeysuckle. These plants were introduced to our country with good intentions but disastrous results. Both are terribly aggressive plants that practically defy eradication.

A steep bank of planted Bush Honeysuckles. Photo by Roy Lukes.

The tubular flowers of the Bush Honeysuckle are small, slightly irregular and grow in clusters of two to six. The corolla of the blossom when at anthesis (an-THEE-sis), which is its peak of flowering, is a pale yellow turning darker, often orange, with age. The four-inch-long, pointed, smooth, oval-shaped leaves of this honeysuckle have toothed margins, the only honeysuckle with this feature that will surely help you to identify this plant. Another attractive feature is its foliage in fall, which turns a bright rusty color. They appear to do very well on a dryish rocky slope, which is exactly what we have. Orsted said I can use a pair of hedge clippers and prune them back a little after the growing season to keep the stand at around two feet tall.

Another native honeysuckle I like is the American Fly Honeysuckle, Lonicera canadensis. Even though this plant is widespread you seldom find a lot of it. They are known to grow in many different types of woods including Maple-Beech-Hemlock, Aspen, Oak, mature White and Red Pine, and Spruce-Fir. Its five-parted, pale greenish-yellow tubular flowers grow in clusters of two. Its closely-joined pairs of brilliant red urn-shaped fruits begin to ripen in late August. Serving as little spotlights, they help you to easily find these plants.

The challenging part of studying the honeysuckles is that they are known to hybridize a lot. As a result, when you use several different field guides to help in identification you may find very similar honeysuckles with different common and scientific names. This is to be expected when you study wildflowers.

There is one more gorgeous member of this group called Wild, Red, Climbing or Mountain Honeysuckle, Lonicera dioica (di-EYE-ca). It is fairly uncommon and until I get good pictures of this species it’ll have to wait for another story. It’s a beauty.

We have many field guides to the wildflowers and each seems to have its strong points. The ones I use the most are Wildflowers of Door County by Mahlberg, Door County’s Wildflowers by Burton and Stampp, Wildflowers of Wisconsin and the Great Lakes Region (second edition) by Black and Judziewicz, and Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Newcomb. I also like an older guide, Wildflowers and Weeds by Courtenay and Zimmerman. Gray’s Manual of Botany, Eighth Edition by Fernald is always within arm’s reach from where I write at our computer.

Brilliant red fruits of the American Fly Honeysuckle surround a Long-jawed Orb Weaver Spider. Photo by Roy Lukes.

The only one of these guides that offers quick and positive field identification, and accompanies me on most wildflower outings, is Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. In order to use this book properly you must have the plant specimen, in full flower, in front of you. I suppose several excellent close-up photos of the plant showing its various features might work too. Another easy requirement is that you study the introduction and the explanation of basic terms before using the book. Even though the book has only a few colored pictures, its line drawings are extremely fine and accurate. One really doesn’t need colored pictures when you have the plant specimen in front of you.

Enjoying mid-summer wildflowers is great fun, and can present some interesting challenges, especially the honeysuckles.