Honeysuckle has always been one of my favorite “wild” plants. The back fence of the house I grew up in was overgrown by honeysuckle vines. I watched butterflies and hummingbirds tap its flowers for nectar and frequently picked and pinched the flowers to get a drop of its sweet nectary fluid myself. I watched the berries disappear in the late summer and fall as passing birds gobbled them up fueling themselves for winter or for migration. I didn’t realize that this vine that was such a focus of biological activity was in fact an exotic, invasive species (“Japanese honeysuckle,” Lonicera japonica) whose uncontrolled growth was greatly stressing our natural plant diversity and whose high carbohydrate, low fat seeds was giving our birds poor quality nutrition for their activities and survivals.
On our Baker Trail hike last summer we came across great thickets of bush honeysuckle especially on the sun lit edges of woodlands. Most of these were another invasive species, the Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii). We noticed that these honeysuckle bushes were loaded with red berries that didn’t seem to be readily eaten by birds or other wildlife. Could this berry abundance possibly indicate some recognition of their poor nutritional quality? References on the Amur honeysuckle indicate that the berries while poisonous to humans are readily eaten by birds (in fact, cedar waxwings feeding on the Amur honeysuckle berries accumulate so much of the berries’ pigments that their wing spots change color!). Why this berry bottleneck occurred would be an interesting problem to study.
Around our field in Apollo we have several honeysuckle bushes (also Amur) and numerous vines (all Japanese honeysuckle). Looking through the USDA PLANT database, I have found that there are seven species of honeysuckle that are native to Pennsylvania. Six of these are species of Lonicera (three shrub varieties and three vine varieties) while one is a species of a closely related genus Diervilla (the northern bush honeysuckle). Four of these seven honeysuckle species are classified as “threatened” or “endangered.” I cannot say for certain that I have ever seen any of these native, truly “wild” honeysuckles on any of the hikes or walks I have taken here in Pennsylvania.
So, my goal for the summer is to find some of these native species. I will let you know how the search progresses!