Charles Quest-Ritson extols the virtues of delightful honeysuckle.
I’ve probably grown more species of honeysuckle than of any other genus except, perhaps, roses and primulas. I love them – but not all of them. An evergreen groundcover plant called Lonicera pileata doesn’t interest me at all. The same is true of L. nitida, also evergreen, but most often used for hedging; it needs no fewer than three cuts a year to keep it tidy. There’s a manky cultivar called Baggeson’s Gold that’s even uglier, but that’s only two duds among some 180 species that all make excellent garden plants.
There’s a big division between the honeysuckles that twine and climb and usually open their long flowers to exhale a delicious scent and the ones that have smaller flowers on fast-growing super-hardy bushes. I got very excited about 20 years ago when the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), announced that it had managed to cross the two types of honeysuckle. Henceforth, we could look forward to hybrids that carried long, sweet-scented flowers on tough, neat shrubs. Alas, they never appeared.
INRA has, however, produced some very good forms of a native honeysuckle that’s one of our lovely British wildflowers, Lonicera periclymenum, of which the most impressive is called Chic&Choc. Its flowers are chocolate-coloured on the outside, a striking contrast with the creamy-yellow insides.
I’ve always valued plants that come from friends’ gardens. Graham Thomas presented me with super-floriferous L. similis var. delavayi (he’s also credited with an autumn-flowering form of our common honeysuckle called Graham Thomas, but he told me he had nothing to do with its introduction and didn’t know where it came from).
My early flowering form called Belgica came from Daphne Hoskins at Kellaways and evergreen L. henryi from John Phillips, Wiltshire’s greatest plantsman.
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My grandmother gave me L. japonica Aureoreticulata – she loved the way the leaf-veins are tricked out in gold – and the head gardener at the Hanbury Botanical Gardens at La Mortola pressed me to take the species with the largest flowers, L. hildebrandiana, which grows to 33ft in sub-tropical Assam, but is too tender to grow outside in England. It died.
Some of our honeysuckles came from seed collected in the wild. The scent of L. etrusca bade me stop and look for seed one warm summer evening as I motored up the Tiber valley. The seed of L. implexa hailed from my uncle’s garden in Majorca and L. xylostemon from Italy’s Gran Paradiso park (with the consent of a warden, I hasten to add).
L. xylostemon is a shrub and the shrubby honeysuckles are wonderful no-nonsense plants for gardens on poor soil such as chalk or Bagshot sand. Many are from central Asia and expect very hot summers and very cold winters. They get a bit confused by our mild winters and I find that L. korolkowii is the first of all my garden shrubs to come into leaf.
We have a beautiful form with glaucous leaves that flowers in April and suckers well; it came from Keith Steadman, of Wickwar in Gloucestershire. Keith was very keen on shrubby honeysuckles (and willows, too) and it was from him that we acquired L. chrysantha and L. ruprechtiana. All these will reach 10ft in height.
The best shrubby honeysuckles don’t grow too big. I recommend L. chaetocarpa, a short shrub with hairy grey leaves and large primrose-yellow flowers. I gave one to Richard Nutt, who showed it to the RHS Floral B Committee; we were disappointed it didn’t get an award.
Everyone knows winter-flowering L. x purpusii, but few grow intensely sweet-scented L. syringantha, which we had from Chris Thornton. No less desirable is L. involucrata, a present from Bill Baker; its yellow flowers are set off by crimson bracts.
My latest acquisitions are L. kamtchatka and closely-related L. caerulea var edulis. Both carry edible purple fruits rather like a cylindrical blueberry and both seem happy in a stony corner of our chalk garden. I’m hoping for enough fruit to fill a small bowl.
Here’s a melancholy postscript. All the gardening friends I mention above are dead now. Their gardens and their memories live on in mine, but where are the young, acquisitive plantsmen that I was once? There is so much I would like to give them.
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