“So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle gently entwist – Oh how I love thee! How I dote on thee!” This line from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream shows that he, like me, was obviously a fan of the wild honeysuckle that tumbles from our hedgerows at this time of the year, filling the evening air with its heavy perfume, especially if there has been a shower of rain.
Many of us have a wide array of different honeysuckles growing in our garden, bought from the garden centre because the eye was caught by the label stating “flowers throughout the summer and fills the air with its intoxicating scent”. Most of these plants are more “showy” than our native Lonicera periclymenum, but I think that our wild one competes with any of them for the fragrant perfume that it exudes. What is more, search a hedgerow to find a twisting branch of wild honeysuckle and pin it to the ground and before long it will produce its own little roots. Then cut it from its parent and take it home and plant it near to where you sit out in the evening, so that you can enjoy its heady scent – all for free!
Honeysuckle also frequents our woodland and clambers up (always clockwise) the smaller shrubs onto the lower branches of the trees, before going on up into the canopy to reach the light, often growing to 30 feet in height. Both in woodland and hedgerows, this deciduous plant’s early growth of leaves attracts nesting birds, which also often pull strips of its papery bark to help build their nests. Indeed, as I write this, there is a dunnock feeding its newly-hatched young in a dense honeysuckle clump right next to the window. Dormice also use these bark strips to make their nests, often almost exclusively from them, and the caterpillars of the beautiful white admiral butterfly, which is found in many of our local woods, feed on honeysuckle.
The delicious perfume that honeysuckle gives off has a purpose of course – most things in the natural world do. The fact that the flowers give off scent once the sun goes down gives us the clue – the plant is pollinated by moths, especially the long tongued hawkmoths, which fly in to imbibe the rich nectar within the flowers. I expect some of you as children will have also sucked the nectar from the bottom of the flower tube - so wonderfully sweet! Eventually, these pollinated flowers turn into red and then ultimately black berries, much sought out by a range of birds – especially some of the summer visiting migrant warblers such as chiffchaff and blackcap, which gorge themselves on these rich berries before embarking on their long journeys southwards.
Humans have also sought out the woodbine, as honeysuckle is often called, as in the past it was considered a favourite plant of witches who "passed their patients nine times through a girth of garland of green woodbine" to cure them of their illnesses. Also highly prized are hazel rods that have had the tightly creeping honeysuckle growing up them, leaving spiral grooves indented on the stem, ideal for turning into a walking stick.
So, the next time you pass a flowering wild honeysuckle, stop for a while to take in this “essence of summer.” Your day is sure to be much improved thanks to this fragrant short pause.
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