Gill Heavens picks her favourite honeysuckles as she enjoys plants which provide form and structure in the garden throughout the year and bestow intoxicating beauty.
The species lonicera, widely known as honeysuckle, are in the family Caprifoliaceae whose members also include abelia and weigela and, strangely enough to my non-botanist self, the teasel. To many the name conjures up images of gloriously scented, summer flowering climbers, preferably in a quintessential English cottage garden. In reality this species includes over 180 different genus whose habitats range from the Arctic Circle to Mexico and consist of not only vines but winter flowering shrubs.
First let us look at the climbers.
Lonicera japonica, or the Japanese honeysuckle, is evergreen in all but the worst winters. It flowers from summer through to autumn when it produces black berries which provide both added beauty and a larder for wildlife. A good cultivar is ‘Halliana’ with perfumed white flowers that mature to yellow and can reach 10m in length. A variegated version ‘Aureoreticulata’ has bright green leaves with prominent yellow veining.
If you have a shady wall then Lonicera × tellmanniana, a Hungarian hybrid, is the one for you. It has bright yellow-orange flowers which emerge from copper buds in late spring and will continue its display into early summer. Although a little tender, it is worth any extra care for the reward of its dramatic blooms.
Lonicera sempervirens, the Trumpet Honeysuckle, has been cultivated in this country for over 350 years, introduced from America in the mid-17th century. In summer it has elegant tubular flowers, reddish-orange on the outside and contrasting yellow within. These blooms alone would be enough, but as a bonus they are followed by rich red berries. The Trumpet Honeysuckle is a parent of my all-time favourite, Lonicera x brownii ‘Dropmore Scarlet’, known as the Scarlet Trumpet Honeysuckle. This variety has deep red flowers with orange throats and will flower from late summer until autumn. Unfortunately it is not so loved in parts of the USA where it is has escaped into the wild and become an invasive pest.
Although known as the Late Dutch Honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum is native to much of Europe where it grows in hedgerows. ‘Serotina’ is a good variety growing to 5m long with fragrant purple flowers, as is the more vigorous ‘Graham Thomas’ with long lasting white flowers. Both of these blooms age to yellow. For a more diminutive version choose ‘Sweet Sue’ which was discovered in Sweden by Roy Lancaster and named after his wife. It has large very pale yellow/white flowers and grows to just 2-3m.
As these climbing honeysuckles twine or twist to raise themselves to the skies they need to have support. You can use trellis, wires or use your imagination: willow structures, arbours, large shrubs or trees, indeed anything that will hold their weight.
Shrubby honeysuckles are also very useful in the garden. In these unfortunate times when box blight has scourged the land, Lonicera nitida makes an excellent substitute. It has delicate green leaves and if left unpruned will make a dense shrub of 2m x 3m. Small fragrant white flowers are produced in late spring, followed later in the season by black berries. The variegated cultivar ‘Baggensen’s Gold’ has bright yellow shoots, which mature to lime green. Also useful for a low hedge is Lonicera pileata.
Lonicera fragrantissima, sometimes known as The Sweetest Honeysuckle, can reach 2m tall by 4m wide. It has short-tubed, creamy white flowers, which are produced for a long period over winter and early spring. So why should you grow this? Its name has possibly given the game away! It has the most wonderful fragrance. Early emerging pollinators are irresistibly drawn by this glorious scent, as are gardeners! We must give thanks to Robert Fortune who introduced this gem from China in the mid-19th century. A worthy hybrid is Lonicera × purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’.
For those of you who live in the tropics or have a large heated greenhouse give Lonicera hildebrandiana, the Giant Burmese Honeysuckle, a try. Large leaved and climbing to 10m, it has incredible long-tubed, buttercream flowers, up to 15cm long, which age to pale orangey buff. They have an aroma which matches the rest of the plant’s magnitude. Your friends will be queuing up to visit when it is in flower!
There is much myth and legend associated with the honeysuckle, or woodbine as it is sometimes called. Always fond of flowers and their symbolism, Shakespeare mentions it in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Oberon, the King of the Fairies, describes where his Queen Titania is sleeping as:
“Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,”
In ancient Greek literature the lovers Daphnis and Chloe only met whilst the honeysuckle was in bloom. After appealing to the gods the length of time it blooms was extended. How thoughtful! For this reason the honeysuckle is the symbol of love and fidelity. In Scotland it was thought to protect cattle frombewitchment and was therefore used to deck their byres. I am sure the cows appreciated the gorgeous scent, if not the sentiment.
Medicinally the Chinese employed honeysuckle as an antidote to snakebites and in medieval Europe it was used for all manner of ailments including skin conditions, dysentery and pneumonia.
Some honeysuckles are edible, including parts of our native species; in fact the name originates from the practice of snapping off the end of the flower and sucking out the sweet nectar. The flowers were used in puddings and made into cakes. However, beware of the fruit, although delicious to birds, they are toxic to us humans. As always, don’t take my word for it, I would recommend that you refrain from eating anything from the wild or garden unless you are quite certain that it is safe to do so.
As for me, I think I will leave the flowers for the bees to sup upon. I will sit back and enjoy these plants which not only provide form and structure in the garden throughout the year, but often bestow intoxicating beauty.