Column: Honeysuckle not so sweet

Published 11:58 pm Thursday, March 9, 2006

By Staff
We've all heard of the plant called honeysuckle. Kind of a friendly word, isn't it? It even has a romantic, poetic ring to it. I have no idea why, but to me it brings visions of warm summer evenings with Victorian era ladies and gentlemen lounging on the porch of a southern plantation mansion; or perhaps wandering lazily along the green grassy paths of a manicured English garden with flowers blooming all around. The word even seems to bring a sense of peacefulness.
That is, unless that God-awful, nasty &%$# is invading your property. Then you're out there cursing, digging, chopping, pulling and poisoning it. The gnarly, long reaching limbs are exasperatingly intertwined amongst each other and with everything else within reach. It ranks right in there with multi-flora rose and wild grape in defying removal by mortal humans.
Actually, there are many species of honeysuckle, some native to this area, some not. The ones I'm referring to are generically called bush honeysuckle and they are one of our nastiest aliens. You may not know it by name but you’ve surely seen it around. It's that dense, shrubby bush with the small, bright red, shiny berries and stringy bark that you see in yards, overgrown shrub land and edges of woodlots. It's the first to leaf out in the spring and the last to drop its leaves in the fall.
Most of the friendlier honeysuckle species are flowering vines. The bush honeysuckles that cause land managers so much grief are the tartarian honeysuckle, Morrow honeysuckle and a hybrid cross of the two, the bella honeysuckle. In most areas and particularly here in Southern Michigan the tartarian honeysuckle seems to be more common. Not that it makes much difference. The species are quite similar and equally devastating to habitat.
The tartarian is native to Central and Eastern Russia and was imported into the U.S. way back in the mid 1700s. The Morrow variety hails from Japan and made its way here in the early 1800s. Our ancestors were fond of these honeysuckles for landscaping. They grow extremely fast and the tiny pink or white flowers bloom relatively early in the spring. The berries, which are most commonly a brilliant scarlet but can also be orange or yellow, are also showy. All the species are quite indifferent to soil or shade conditions. They grow anywhere from bone dry wasteland to marshes, in full sun or moderate shade. Only the densest forests can keep honeysuckle at bay with shade. The books tell us honeysuckle prefers full sun but from my observations the thickest, most prolific stands are at the edges of woodlots, suggesting some shade is beneficial.
It's all these endearing landscaping qualities that make them such a bane to our wildlands. Stands of honeysuckle grow so densely they crowd out all the understory plants. When honeysuckle moves into a woodland the trilliums, violets, ferns, mushrooms and all the other small plants that make a forest what it is are doomed. The ground under a robust stand of honeysuckle is often completely bare, all other plant life shaded and starved out. Because the honeysuckle leafs out so early no other species stands a chance to compete. The honeysuckle’s shallow root system also takes significant amounts of nutrients from the soil, further lessening the chance of competition from other plants.
Fortunately for us doing battle with honeysuckle, the roots run quite shallow and do not sprout up new shoots. They spread entirely from seed. Though not ranking high on most bird's chow list, they do eat the berries to a degree, effectively spreading honeysuckle seed wherever they go. Small honeysuckle plants can often be pulled up in the spring and fall when the ground is moist and loose. The larger plants, which can be over twelve foot tall, are best cut off at the base and the stump immediately treated with a glyphosate base herbicide.
I've always heard that honeysuckle was poisonous but that appears open to debate. Apparently there have been cases in Europe of mild poisoning from eating large quantities of berries but there are reportedly no such cases in the U.S. I wouldn't suggest testing this, though. Carpe diem.