Memories of long summer evenings and going to bed while it was still light are something many of my generation remember. With the katydids singing and lightning bugs flashing their fiery dance across the lawns and pastures, these memories take us back to that time in our lives. We slept with the windows open and the scent of honeysuckle soothed us as we drifted off to sleep.
Honeysuckle was also a part of our days. Kids played wherever they wanted and often roamed far across creeks and fields. If you had a pony or horse, you could roam even further. Many of us remember coming upon a thicket of honeysuckle and pulling the blossoms to sip that tiny drop of sweet nectar from the end. There was never more than the smallest drop, but the mere fact that you knew it was there gave you a smug sense of knowledge that you could 'live off the land.' In fact, the name 'honey-suckle' is an apt description of this practice. We never dreamed that this plant was an alien invader wrecking havoc in our pastures and fencerows.
Lonicera japonica was introduced from Asia during the 1800's in many countries around the world. It was touted as an ornamental ground-cover and a source for cattle fodder. This highly adaptable plant quickly escaped into the wild via the round black seeds that birds found tasty. Honeysuckle can reproduce via seeds, underground runners and rooting at the leaf joints, so there's not many instances where it failed to thrive. The twining stems choke trees and shrubs, while the climbing vines shade the ground below and block needed sunlight from the plants underneath. Large areas of pasture and farmland are quickly over-run without careful management and it is listed as a noxious weed in a number of countries around the world. However, deer and rabbits love it and it is a valuable food source for them, unfortunately, they aren't able to make a dent into the mass of foliage that continues to spread each year. Since it is evergreen in warmer areas, honeysuckle has a head start each spring as well.
Honeysuckle has long history in folklore and herbal medicine. Bringing it into a house guarantees a wedding within a year, however young Victorian girls were discouraged from doing so because it was believed that honeysuckle caused passionate, 'unladylike' dreams. Growing honeysuckle around a door prevented witches from entering the house and if you rub the flowers on your brow, it was believed you could see into the future. The flowers are safe to consume and can be added to salads, puddings and breads while the young shoots have been boiled and used as a potherb for centuries. However, the vines contain saponins in fairly high concentrations (so does the grain quinoa) and were often cut and thrown into pools and streams by tribal hunters to paralyze fish, as they are quite sensitive to this compound. They also made baskets and ropes from the vines.
Honeysuckle has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. It has pain and fever relieving properties, just like willow bark and can also be used like Echinacea to treat respiratory infections. The dried flower buds are often sold in Asian pharmacies. Modern scientists have also determined that the flowers can help reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, however more testing is needed before dosing recommendations can be made.
If you find Lonicera japonica for sale in a nursery, please do not buy it. It is actually illegal to offer for sale in a number of states, provinces and countries. If you want a honeysuckle, there are some less aggressive species that will still give you the same look in the garden. Check with your local nursery to find out what grows best in your area.
Enjoy the scent of Japanese honeysuckle as you stroll through the pastures and woods. Take a sip of the nectar when you walk by, but keep it out of your garden!