By Mel Bellar
Honeysuckle is one of those common names that covers a lot of ground (sorry) and a lot of different plants. Growing up in the South, my first introduction to honeysuckle was as a vine with white and yellow flowers that grew on the barbed wire fences at my grandmother’s. It was a big thrill to find them and pick the flowers so that I could pull out the string (called the style) and get the drop of sweet nectar that came with it. Now, I know that this particular honeysuckle is an invasive species called Lonicera japonica that is found in all but 7 states and is definitely on the “no no” list in New York. I have rarely seen it in the Catskills, but it is here; however, I don’t think it does the same damage here that it does in warmer climates.
While we are talking about the “bad” (but oh so sweet) honeysuckles, there are invasive varieties that are rampant in the Catskills that drive me crazy. The Tatarian honeysuckle is particularly prevalent and troublesome. It is a shrub that can get quite large; it is gangly and unattractive (to my eye) except maybe for the brief period when it is in bloom. It has a profusion of small pinkish, yellow or white flowers (or a combination) and blooms for about 2 weeks in the late Spring. I see this plant cropping up in huge numbers in fields that are no longer being brush-hogged. It also invades the woodland edges and almost anywhere that doesn’t get mown or removed and that has a half-day of sun. It is insanely rampant in some developed areas like Roxbury Run, especially in the vacant parcels between houses. There are a couple of other invasive varieties that are living here, but I haven’t learned to identify them. They are the Amur and Morrow honeysuckles, which I think I just see as the Tatarian, as they look very similar to me.
There are a number of “good” honeysuckles that I love and use often in the gardens I create. Honeysuckle vines have been big on the list since I first created my own garden. Vines crawling up trellises and scrambling along fences are something I really love. The classic honeysuckles, Dropmore Scarlet (bright red orange) and John Clayton (bright creamy yellow) were easier to find in the past. However, I gave up on the John Clayton as it petered out on me after a few years, but Dropmore Scarlet is still my favorite. We have one climbing on the railing around our back deck that has been bringing me great joy for almost 2 decades, and the hummingbirds love it as well. Unfortunately, I almost never see this classic in the nurseries anymore, but when I do I buy it and some lucky client benefits. I also really like the variety Goldflame, which is a Lonicera heckrottii, and has been producing for me in several situations for many years. Goldflame has a really showy blossom that has fuchsia, orange and yellow coloring in varying configurations and degrees depending on the plant and the location. It is vigorous and a real winner. Mandarin and Peaches & Cream are 2 colorful varieties that I tried in my garden that struggled along and never really delivered. I planted Scentsation a couple of years ago at a client’s in Woodstock and it is showing great promise. It has a nice buttery yellow color and hopefully it will live up to its name.
Beside the vine honeysuckles which seem to be all Loniceras, there is a whole selection of “bush” honeysuckles which all seem to be Diervillas. It doesn’t make sense to me why these two different genera share a common name, however there are a lot of things that don’t make sense to me. These 2 ½’ to 3’ tall bush honeysuckles only came to my attention a few years ago and they are a great addition to our native plant palette. The straight species Diervilla lonicera has cool coppery and light green foliage with little yellow flowers in the Spring, but comes with a serious warning: It is a very vigorous spreader, and the deer can love it: at least in Woodstock they do. I would not plant this where you don’t want it to form a huge mass, but it is great on the woodland edge or on a tough bank where it can go wild. There are other species and cultivars that are better behaved and offer some great foliage colors. Kodiak Orange, Kodiak Red and Kodiak Black live up to their names, providing strong foliage, and don’t require a lot of real estate. There is a variegated option, Lonicera sessilifolia “Cool Splash” that I really love. It is not as vigorous as the others and needs nice soil and more TLC, but it can be worth it. I planted one in the garden in front of Two Old Tarts that has done very well over the years. The deer don’t seem to like this one which is a relief.
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate