There is quite a bit of confusion surrounding a group of plants known as honeysuckles. Uttering the word “honeysuckle” to a group of gardeners from the St. Louis region is sure to garner attention, and not all of it positive. This is for good reason. Invasive honeysuckles cause ecological harm by reducing native plant diversity, shading out tree seedlings, providing berries of poor nutritional value to native birds, and displacing the plants that native insects and other fauna rely on. But not all honeysuckles are the dreaded invasive species.
Honeysuckles are a diverse group of plants belonging to the genus Lonicera, which includes around 180 species native to temperate and subtropical regions of the Northern Hemisphere. They are characterized by tubular flowers and a vining or shrubby growth habit.
Lonicera sempervirens, a native honeysuckle beloved by hummingbirds, blooms at Shaw Nature Reserve. Photo by Tilda Adams.
There are around 18 species of honeysuckle that are native to North America and three that are native to Missouri. The native Missouri species are mostly vining plants with showy flowers that are attractive to butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators. All they need to thrive is a full-sun or mostly sunny location, evenly moist soil, and a support structure such as an arbor or trellis to support their climbing growth. Below are a few recommended by the William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening:
Lonicera dioica | Limber honeysuckle or red honeysuckle
This clambering vine produces clusters of pale orange to red flowers at the ends of thin stems from spring into early summer. The flowers are followed by round berries that mature from green to bright orange or red. It is found scattered throughout Missouri but is more common in the northern Midwest, the Great Lakes region, and the Northeast. It is often found at the bases of rocky bluffs, along stream banks, or in upland forests. It usually grows in and amongst other vegetation.
Lonicera dioica. Photo by Brett Whaley via Creative Commons.
Lonicera flava is a trailing or loosely climbing vine with terminal clusters of bright, golden yellow blooms in spring that are followed by orangish-red to red berries. They can occasionally have a sprawling, shrublike habit. In Missouri, this plant can be found in rocky, woodland openings, on bluff tops, and along stream banks, primarily in the Ozarks. Its native range also includes northern Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma, and portions of the southern Appalachians.
Lonicera flava. Photo by Daria McKelvey.
Lonicera reticulata | Grape honeysuckle
This twining vine produces terminal clusters of pale yellow flowers from spring into early summer. Its common name comes from the elongated clusters of round, red berries that can resemble bunches of grapes. It can be found in northern and central Missouri, with its range extending primarily to the north and east into Iowa, southern Wisconsin, and northern Illinois.
Lonicera reticulata, also known as grape honeysuckle, in flower. Photo by Eric Hunt via CC BY-SA 4.0.
This vining honeysuckle is found throughout the southeastern and eastern United States in mesic woodlands and along the banks of ponds, streams, and rivers. Although most botanists agree this species was introduced to Missouri, this showy, nonaggressive honeysuckle will nonetheless be right at home in any bird garden. Its long, tubular, coral-red blooms are highly attractive to hummingbirds. This maintenance, non-invasive beauty is a Plant of Merit.
Most of the invasive honeysuckles in our region are Asian species or hybrids introduced to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by European and American plant collectors as useful gardening and landscaping plants. They grow quickly and vigorously, have fragrant, showy flowers, and were widely touted for their ability to create a dense screen of vegetation, control erosion, and provide food and habitat for wildlife. What was not fully understood at the time was the impact these plant introductions would have on native ecosystems.
Bush honeysuckle is a dense, invasive shrub with fragrant, white to pale yellow flowers followed by bright red berries. This species leafs out in the early spring before most native species, and it holds on to its leaves later into the fall, shading out native woodland plants. You can learn more about bush honeysuckle’s effect on our region, how to eradicate it from your property, and where you can assist with removal from public spaces on our website.
Lonicera maackii is a noxious weed whose invasive growing habits are a serious threat to native ecosystems throughout the United States. Photo via Plant Finder.
This hybrid between L. morrowii (Morrow’s honeysuckle) and L. tatarica (Tatarian honeysuckle) is another invasive honeysuckle with a similar habit and appearance to L. maackii, but its flowers can be pale pink.
Showy fly honeysuckle is a highly invasive honeysuckle hybrid that should not be planted. Photo by Joseph Berger, Bugwood.org.
Japanese honeysuckle is a semi-evergreen climbing vine that will smother native vegetation and even climb canopy trees. Its white to pale pink flowers fade to yellow and are followed by round, glossy black berries.
Japanese honeysuckle is highly invasive in the United States and should not be planted. Photo by Chuck Bargeron, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org
For more detailed information on both the native and invasive species of honeysuckles in Missouri, visit the Missouri Department of Conservation’s online Field Guide.
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