I sat me down to watch upon a bank
With ivy canopied and interwove
With flaunting honeysuckle. (John Milton)
Mention honeysuckle, and we think of green hedgerows, sultry summer days, and childhoods spent picking the flowers and putting them in our mouths to suck out the sweet nectar. There are around 180 species in the genus Lonicera. Fast growing and tolerant of inhospitable conditions, honeysuckles have much to recommend them. Many are valuable landscape plants able to withstand Colorado’s challenging conditions while presenting us with beautiful flowers and berries adored by birds.
Not all honeysuckles are welcome, however. Some species imported to North America as landscape plants have escaped cultivation and become invasive weeds. (One example is Tartarian Honeysuckle, Lonicera tatarica, left.) Unfortunately, these honeysuckles have given the entire genus a bad reputation. Perhaps it’s time to take another look at this diverse group of plants.
Happily, Japanese honeysuckle isn’t a problem here in Colorado (or at leat not a big problem), and it does well here. Besides being quite drought tolerant (a bonus in most years), it’s a vigorous, fast growing vine that’s easy to grow. Give it full sun and it will quickly cover a slope or trellis. Hall’s Honeysuckle is a readily available, attractive cultivar with cheerful yellow and white flowers.
Choosing a native honeysuckle almost guarantees garden success, with no danger of the plants becoming invasive. Colorado’s own Twinberry (L. involucrata) is gaining popularity as a landscape plant. It’s a small- to medium-sized upright shrub with bright green leaves, creamy yellow trumpet-shaped flowers attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies. Purple-black fruit are set off by bright red bracts, and are eaten by bears, small mammals, and birds. In addition, the leaves are food for some butterfly larva. All honeysuckles have opposite branching; twinberry’s paired leaves, flowers, and berries make it an easy plant to identify in the wild.
Trumpet Honeysuckle (L. sempervirens) hails from the eastern U.S. Its paired leaves are fused at the base, forming a green disk that provides a contrasting backdrop for the stunning, deep orange-red flowers. Evergreen only to USDA zone 8, the vine survives winters as cold as zone 4, making it hardy enough for most of Colorado. Popular cultivars include ‘Magnifica’ (the flowers are red with yellow interiors, top), ‘Sulphurea’ (flowers are yellow), ‘Superba’ (flowers are bright scarlet), and the orange-red flowered hybrid ‘Dropmore Scarlet’ (Lonicera x brownii).
Orange Honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa) is another vine native to the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Hardy in zones 4 through 9, it prefers damp soil, although survive a few days of dry soil once established. Reaching 20 feet in length, the vines aren’t as aggressive as other honeysuckles. Bright orange flowers appear in late spring or early summer, followed by red berries.
There are other native Honeysuckles, all with pretty flowers and red berries. Double-flowered honeysuckle (L. conjugialis) grows in shady, moist forests and high elevations west of the Rockies, and is a small shrub similar to Twinberry. L. arizonica is a shrub of vine that can be found in the mountains of Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Utah. And hairy honeysuckle (L. hispidula) is perhaps the most versatile of all. It’s native to the Pacific coast, where it grows in bright sun, full shade, dry soil, or moist soil—and it can take the form of a stocky shrub, climbing vine or sprawling groundcover. In all, there are twenty species of honeysuckle in North America. While not all are widely grown in cultivation, many are available at nurseries specializing in native plants.
Honeysuckles are fast growing, sturdy plants that aren’t fussy about soil, as long as it’s not soggy. You’ll get the most flowers in full sun, but part shade is acceptable. Most species require constantly damp soil although Japanese Honeysuckle can be quite drought tolerant. They’re usually not bothered by insect pests or diseases. Plant them where they can reach their natural size, and the only care they will require is an occasional pruning to keep them tidy. Easy to grow, attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds, and with berries that feed a variety of wildlife, it’s clear that honeysuckles should be part of every landscape!