Taking an environmentally sensitive approach to pest management


Missouri Environment & Garden


David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Honeysuckles: For Better or For Worse

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: May 5, 2016


The honeysuckles are a group of vigorous woody vines and shrubs that can be grown nearly anywhere. As a rule, they produce abundant foliage, flowers and fruit, and are nearly indestructible. The latter also explains why certain species of honeysuckle can quickly get out of control and become a pest in the landscape.

Honeysuckles belong to the genus Lonicera, which contains about 180 identified species. Most are native to the Orient although native species do exist in Europe, India and North America. The common name honeysuckle is derived from the sweet nectar which can be sucked from their flowers.

The term honeysuckle most often is associated with twining, woody vines. The latter can be good or bad. The bad reputation of honeysuckle has been earned by only a few species, the most notorious of which is Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). Hall’s honeysuckle is a commonly-grown cultivar of Japanese honeysuckle. Youngsters love this plant because the sweet nectar that can be sucked from its flowers; most adults despise it because of its invasive tendencies.

Planted with good intentions, Japanese honeysuckle often becomes a weedy, twining vine that can grow from 15 to 30 feet in length. It was introduced into the eastern United States from the Orient in the early 19th century and has spread into many native areas since that time. Although a serious pest in many areas, it has become especially problematic in the southeastern part of the United States. Japanese honeysuckle bears semi-evergreen leaves and produces very fragrant flowers that change from white to yellow as they mature. Except for its tendency to become weedy, it can be very attractive.

Japanese honeysuckle no longer is recommended for landscape planting, since it easily gets out of control and becomes a nuisance. Left uncontrolled when located near shrubs and small trees, the plant vines over them and can choke them out. Birds spread its seeds by eating its berries and starting the plant under trees, along fences or other places birds might frequent.

Fortunately, not all vining honeysuckles are as vigorous and invasive as Japanese honeysuckle. The scarlet trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is a better choice for climbing the likes of a fence or trellis. While it may grow up to 20 feet or more in length, it is not nearly as vigorous as Japanese honeysuckle. Additionally, it does not produce abundant seeds that, subsequently, can be spread by birds. Its trumpet-shaped, red flowers are very attractive to hummingbirds which gives the plant additional summer interest.

Arguably the best choice for a vining honeysuckle is Brown’s honeysuckle (Lonicera x brownii). As its scientific name implies, it is a hybrid that has scarlet trumpet honeysuckle as one of its parents. ‘Dropmore Scarlet’ is a popular cultivar of Brown’s honeysuckle that is valued for its scarlet-red flowers produced over an extended period of time. Vigorous, yet not aggressive, it is a great choice for arbors and trellises. It, too, is very attractive to hummingbirds.

No doubt the most useful honeysuckles in the landscape are the shrub honeysuckles. The latter include species which produce large plants that make attractive screens, hedges, or large specimen plants. One of the most common in this group is Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tartarica). Native to Siberia, it grows about 10 feet tall and equally wide when left unpruned. It bears red to pink flowers that later fade to white, depending upon cultivar. Its fruits are a red berry that ripens in June or early July and are a favorite food of birds. Although the plant cannot be considered nearly as serious a pest as Japanese honeysuckle, the abundant berries it produces contain seeds which are spread by birds, causing it to become weedy in some areas.

Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is another shrub-type honeysuckle that makes a good hedge or screen. It grows fairly quickly to a height of six to 10 feet and bears fragrant white flowers in very late winter or early spring, making it a pleasant harbinger of spring. Although it lacks other outstanding qualities, it is easy to grow in many types of soils and exposures.

Honeysuckles thrive in full sun, but will tolerate partial sun and light, afternoon shade. As a rule, shrub honeysuckles are intolerant of poorly-drained, wet soils to the point they eventually will weaken and die in such locations. Contrastingly, they are very tolerant of dry soils and can compete well with the roots of trees and other large shrubs. They can, however, overpower smaller plants and shrubs.

When honeysuckles become overgrown, they can be cut back to ground level with little adverse effects. New shoots quickly will develop and regenerate a new plant. Shrub honeysuckles that have been cut back often produce so many shoots from the root system that they must be thinned to allow only a few shoots to remain. As they grow and develop, these new shoots can be pruned to control the size and shape the plant.

Other honeysuckles of interest include the goldflame honeysuckle (Lonicera x heckrottii) which continues to bloom throughout the summer. Its flowers are pink on the outside and yellow on the inside and are exquisitely fragrant. For gardeners who want bluish-green color in their landscape, the Morrow honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowi)is a good choice. It bears creamy white flowers followed by red fruit on a dense, somewhat-tangled shrub that may achieve a mature height of six feet.

Conversely, Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) and bella honeysuckle (Lonicera x bella) are considered by most states as noxious, invasive plants that should be avoided. Both are erect, shrub honeysuckles native to Asia that tend to invade a wide variety of habitats. The result is the establishment of a monoculture that quickly crowds out native plants. Because of the affinity deer have for honeysuckle as a food source, research has shown a correlation between populations of Amur honeysuckle and tick-related diseases such as Lyme disease.

While it may be wise to avoid adding certain honeysuckles to your landscape, there are plenty of others have attractive flowers, pleasant fragrance and are easy-to-grow.

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REVISED: May 5, 2016