Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I guess Hank and I are just getting old. I’m not sure what we used to do for fun on a weeknight, but nowadays, one of our most pleasant and relaxing evenings are spent watching British mysteries we order from Netflix. Many of them have confusing and complicated plots that you can barely follow without taking notes. One Hank likes, “A Touch of Frost,” is a dark and gritty police detective drama set in Leeds. Another one I like is about two women named, cleverly, Rosemary and Thyme. One is an amateur sleuth and the other is a plant pathologist. There are, of course, lots of plants, and plant problems to be discussed amidst the whodunit drama and the setting, always some lush, scenic English garden, is better than a travelogue. “Midsomer Murders” is another favorite with great scenery.
Hank’s greatest favorite has just returned to Masterpiece Theater on Sunday with new episodes. It’s called “Foyle’s War” and tells the story of a police detective in the south of England who is constantly called on to solve some murder or other. The female character is Foyle’s War also has a lovely name – in real life, she’s called Honeysuckle Weeks.
Now somebody named Honeysuckle Weeks sounds like she could be from Aiken, even though she is clearly quite British. We have a lot of Weekses around here, and we have a lot of Honeysuckle. So now do you see where I’m going with this?
Japanese Honeysuckle is in full bloom right now around town. It’s the plant we remember fondly from our childhood, but the plant Dr. Jeff Priest, in a class I took from him once, called only “Bad Plant!”
The fragrance of Japanese honeysuckle evokes memories of spring and walking barefoot and holding hands and sucking the drop of sweetness from the fuzzy corolla. How could it be that bad?
It was introduced into this country in the 1800’s as an ornamental vine and for erosion control and eventually escaped into the wild across the country. It is most abundant in the southeast where it is considered a “pernicious weed” that is almost impossible to control. Though there are wholesale nurseries around the country that supply Japanese Honeysuckle to retail outlets, it still has maintained a bad reputation with conservationists.
Perhaps because of the relative size of its leaves and flowers, the Oriental interloper doesn’t seem nearly as treacherous to me as say, Wisteria or Kudzu or Water Hyacinth. I’ve never seen a barn or a mule swallowed up by honeysuckle (actually I’ve only heard that about the mule and the kudzu). I’ve never heard of Honeysuckle clogging up a waterway. And I’ve never had honeysuckle choke out a perfectly good tree, though I’m told that it can.
The genus Lonicera contains about 180 deciduous or sometimes evergreen species of bushy or climbing shrubs, many of which are less invasive than the Japanese variety. It was named by Linnaeus after Johann Lonitzer, a German naturalist. They are usually grown for their masses of trumpet shaped, perfumed flowers.
A mannerly choice for Aiken gardens is our native honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens or Coral Honeysuckle, so named for its coral color blooms which resemble those of its Japanese cousin. It will withstand our winters, sometimes even putting forth a bloom when our landscape is otherwise gray and bare. It will grow is in dry shade but thrives in rich, moist soil in full sunshine, and will grow to twenty feet or so.
Several years ago I planted a yellow variety of the native honeysuckle named “John Clayton” on the fence that is crowded with ivy and Virginia Creeper and roses. It’s always sent out growth, but never flowered. This year, the growth is even thicker, but miraculously it has chosen to bloom, quite beautifully. “John Clayton” was found on the grounds of historic seventeenth century Abington Church in Gloucester County, Virginia and was named for the colonial botanist Rev. John Clayton of Gloucester County.
Woodlanders Nursery, where I got “John Clayton,” says it is a compact repeat bloomer selected by the Virginia Native Plant Society, a favorite vine for mailbox posts or small garden arbors.
There appear to be many cultivars of Lonicera sempervirens, and some claim to bloom longer than others, all are quite lovely though, and I think Dr. Priest would never call them bad.
Another good honeysuckle for Aiken gardens is Gold Flame Honeysuckle or Lonicera heckrottii. It is a vigorous vine which grows 15 to 25 feet but can also be pruned back to form a dense shrub 4 to 6 feet round. It has long, very fragrant 1 1/2 inch coral pink to purple flowers with a pale yellow inside that more closely resemble Japanese Honeysuckle.
So now I am thinking of changing my name. How does Honeysuckle Elder sound? Or maybe I should just get a cat. Honeysuckle would be a fine name for an orange tabby.
click to read about Foyle's War and the Real Honeysuckle Weeks