Sandy’s Garden ... Honeysuckle

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

The noun ‘honeysuckle’ came into my life twice in a single day recently, having not played any part in it for rather a long time.

The first occurrence was when I was consulting the late, great Gertrude Jekyll’s book ‘Wood and Garden’, first published by Longmans, Green & Co, in 1899 and as well worth reading now as it was ‘way back then. In the chapter headed ‘March’, I read: “Honeysuckle in suitable conditions will ramble to great heights – in this district most noticeably in tall hollies and junipers as well as in high hedges.” ‘In this district’ meant Surrey to the famous garden designer, so we must not be surprised at her reference to ‘high hedges’.

And the second occurrence on a single day came in the evening, when I watched an old episode of ‘Foyle’s War,’ in which the role of Samantha Stewart is played by the actress Honeysuckle Weeks, who was born in Cardiff on 1 August 1979, 90 years after the publication of Miss Jekyll’s first book. The infant daughter of Robin and Susan Weeks was called Honeysuckle because these gorgeous flowers were in bloom when she was born; and the plant after which she was named came by its generic botanical name … Lonicera … in honour of the sixteenth century German physician Adam Lonicer, while its common name … honeysuckle … is much older, so named because countless generations of children sucked ‘honey’ from its attractive, tubular flowers.

There are many species of Lonicera, most of which are hardy twining climbers; and many of the species have sweetly-scented flowers that produce edible nectar, while the fruit of most species … red, blue or black berries … is mildly poisonous to humankind but attractive to wildlife. The most common species native to the British Isles is Lonicera periclymenum, otherwise … would you believe? … ‘common honeysuckle’, which occurs naturally throughout Europe and north Africa. Because they are vigorous climbers, honeysuckles are grown in gardens so that their foliage will help to conceal ugly walls and outbuildings, with the added benefit of their lovely summer flowers and their intense fragrance. Perhaps the best variety for a Scottish garden is a cultivar of Lonicera periclymenum, Lonicera periclymenum ‘Belgica’, usually sold in garden centres as ‘Early Dutch honeysuckle’.

Let the gardener beware, however. Honeysuckle is a vigorous plant which, being native to our islands, thrives here and will readily spread beyond the area within which the grower wishes it to be confined. Several species of honeysuckle have become invasive when introduced as exotic plants into countries where they non-native, New Zealand and the United States being two parts of the world where many residents wish that enthusiastic horticulturists had never cast envious eyes on the plant during their travels abroad! In the States, the Plant Conservation Alliance’s Alien Plant Working Group has this to say about Lonicera japonica, the Japanese honeysuckle. “In North America, Japanese honeysuckle has few natural enemies which allows it to spread widely and out-compete native plant species. … Shrubs and young trees can be killed by girdling when vines twist tightly around stems and trunks, cutting off the flow of water through the plant. … Vigorous root competition also helps Japanese honeysuckle spread and displace neighbouring native vegetation.” But we are not resident in the United States and have no reason to import any non-native species of a plant which has grown here since time immemorial, has pleased countless generations of plant-lovers, gardeners and children and which can still add beauty and fragrance to our environment.