The honeysuckle’s heady scent of summer
Entwined throughout the garden, the spindly trumpet heads of climbing honeysuckle exhale the scent of summer
“I sat me down to watch upon a bank With ivy canopies and interwove With flaunting honeysuckle”
The sweet smell of honeysuckle pervading the summer air is as synonymous with the season as strawberries and cream. In full flower, a mature plant clothes walls, gates and arches with a shower of honey-scented blossom. Romantic and charming, the arching shrub is both fragrant and decorative. As roses unfurl their second flush of flowers, dependable honeysuckles are in full bloom. Together, they bring the perfume and soft colour that make an English country garden such an enviable place to be on a summer’s day. And as evening falls, the scent of the honeysuckle intensifies even further. Lonicera periclymenum, the common climbing honeysuckle of these heady, halcyon days, is a British native. It can be found growing wild, its dainty creamy-yellow flowers adorning woodland and hedgerows. They are pollinated by moths drawn at night by the strong fragrance, including the Hummingbird Hawkmoth, which can detect their scent from up to a quarter of a mile away. The plant also attracts pollinating bumblebees as well as butterflies, including the White Admiral. It uses honeysuckle as its sole food plant, flying into areas of semi shade to lay its eggs on the leaves.
The cream-to-buff-coloured tubular flowers of common honeysuckle curl up at their trumpet-like ends to reveal two ‘lips’, the upper having four lobes. The leaves are notable in that they are almost stalkless, with new growth sprouting from old wood at the end of winter, as if it has been artificially attached to the stems. Smooth and oval-shaped, the leaves are greyish-green or, as with ‘Red Gables’, bronze-flushed when young, becoming darker in time.
John milton, Comus
Common honeysuckle climbs by twining around its hosts in a clockwise direction. In the wild, it winds around trees and shrubs and can choke other plants. Shrubby woodland plants, such as holly, are more at risk here. Care, therefore, needs to be taken when growing honeysuckle in a mixed area, although it makes an ideal partner for vigorous rambling roses over a large arch. Wherever it is grown in the garden, as much space as possible should be allowed for the climber to mature. Common honeysuckle can grow up to 20ft (7m) tall. Other varieties are not quite as vigorous, such as ‘Fragrant Cloud’, which is more compact than the native species, growing up to 10ft (3m) in height. Its flowers are a mix of dark and light pink, and cream. Reaching approximately
the same height is ‘Scentsation’, bearing white and daffodil-yellow flowers. Their vigorous twining habit makes honeysuckle plants suitable for growing up pillars and obelisks. Growing them to horizontal structures, such as walls and fences, requires the fixing of stems to wires, resulting in a more forced display. Allowing the plants to grow naturally upwards or to cascade over walls results in a particularly attractive garden feature. ‘Rhubarb and Custard’ is suitable for a shorter support within a container of soil-based John Innes compost, growing to a very manageable 7ft (2m) tall. As the name suggests, the flowers of this variety are in shades of flushed pink and buttery yellow.
Forms of colour
Closer to the colour and size of common honeysuckle is the variety ‘Graham Thomas’, which starts off with white flowers with a green-tinged tube, before ageing to a more
familiar creamy yellow all over. It was discovered growing in a hedgerow near Warwick, by legendary plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas. If yellow proves too much of a clash with the other colours in the garden, ‘Red Gables’ is a vivid form which shows off deep red tubes on its flowers, edged with pink and cream lips. It grows approximately 20ft (7m) tall. When the flowers of native honeysuckle eventually fade, there is still colour to come in its clusters of translucent red berries. They are not edible for humans, but can provide autumn food for songbirds, such as thrushes, warblers and bullfinches.
Common honeysuckle prefers soil that stays moist but does not become waterlogged. It will grow on clay or sandy soil, and the addition of organic matter, such as well-rotted compost or leaf mould, encourages strong, disease-free growth. A sunny or semi-shaded position can be earmarked for these plants, ideally with their roots in the shade, to mimic woodland conditions. The best time to plant a honeysuckle is in early spring, when new growth is just starting to appear. However, it can also be planted in summer. Summer-planted honeysuckles require a bucketful of water after planting and additional watering every two or three weeks during dry, warm spells. Applying a 2in (5cm) thick mulch around the base of the plant is essential in order to help conserve enough moisture.
Pests and diseases
New growth on honeysuckles can be prone to aphid attack, but if tackled early, there is no cause for alarm. The aphids can be blasted off the stems by spraying them with a jet of water from a hosepipe or wiped off the shoots using a damp cloth. The fungal disease mildew can be a problem in dry spells towards the end of summer. There is nothing that can be done once the powdery white covering on the upper sides of the leaves has been identified. The best way to prevent mildew is to keep the base of the plant moist throughout the growing season. Applying a mulch of well-rotted or multi-purpose compost in spring, after watering well, will reduce the risk of the fungus. With just a little care, the honeysuckle will tumble through the summer garden with its creamy, spindly blooms. Bobbing along flexible twisting stems, the profusion of these distinctive flowers, accompanied by the gentle hum of visiting bees, is a signal that summer has reached its glorious best.
New leaves grow close to the old wood, appearing as if they do not have stalks (top). Reddy-brown flushed leaves peep out from the woody stems, which have a clockwise twining habit (above).
Pollinators, the Hummingbird Hawkmoth and White Admiral are drawn to the honeysuckle.
Bushy clumps of honeysuckle tumble over an allotment shed, providing natural cover for a water butt.
‘Red Gables’ produces masses of flushed flowers in raspberry and cream colours during the summer, especially loved by bees.
Powerfully sweet-smelling ‘Scentsation’, with its ivory-yellow blooms, flowers from midsummer to September.
Ruby-red berries add drops of colour from the end of summer. In most species they are mildly poisonous to humans, but are attractive to wildlife.
The variety ‘Serotina’, also known as late Dutch honeysuckle, has a long flowering season.