The ancient name for our native honeysuckle is woodbine. At this time of year, in our part of the West Country, the high banked lanes are brimful of
this sweet smelling, graceful climber that twines vigorously into the hedgerows, sometimes to a height of 21ft. Generations of children have sucked the flowers, which are rich in nectar, as the corolla is often half filled with it. Consequently, it is a great favourite with bees, and also moths; the flowers of wild honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) are creamy-white to yellow, sometimes tinged with red, and are much loved by hawkmoths. (A Viennese botanist, Anton Kerner, once placed a hawkmoth 900ft away from the nearest honeysuckle. When dusk fell, he watched the moth gently wave its feelers, and head straight for the flowers).
There are about 180 species, most of them native to China. The remainder hail from Europe and North America (honeysuckles in the latter are pollinated by hummingbirds).Among my favourites is Lonicera etrusca Superba, which I grow against a west facing wall here in Cothay Manor’s gardens. In summer, this glorious, semi evergreen honeysuckle from the Mediterranean region bears large trusses of fragrant, creamy yellow flowers.
For June flowering on a north-facing wall, few plants are more spectacular than Lonicera tragophylla, which can clamber up to 18ft. This is one of the Chinese species, where it grows only in shady places. The flowers are huge and bright yellow, and its foliage is tinted bronze, with purple highlights. The secret is to plant it in humus rich soil that never dries out, even in a hot summer, and give it a mesh framework for support. It is very hardy, and is one of the showiest of the climbing species, although, sadly, the flowers have no fragrance. Its close relative, a cross between Lonicera tragophylla and L. sempervirens, raised in Budapest in about 1920, is Lonicera x tellmanniana, which has large clusters of coppery yellow flowers with red highlights, and is also a fine plant for shade.
Another favourite of mine is the hybrid Lonicera x brownii Fuchsioides, bearing flowers of a bright orangey red, from May through to August, to a height of 12ft. I grow it in an east-facing bed where it climbs into the beautiful, pale shrub Colutea x media I admit the combination was a pleasing accident. If you don’t have suitable walls in your garden for climbers, honeysuckles do well when romping up trees, powering their way up to the light. It is best to plant on the north side, about 1½ft away from the trunk. The plant will then aim itself naturally south, towards the sun. I find honeysuckles also climb well up metal supports, sometimes cascading attractively over the top. A good pair of secateurs will keep them in the shape you require.
Lastly, I commend Lonicera maackii, from Manchuria. I grew ours from seed and it is now huge about 6ft wide and 9ft high. We grow it in the meadow where, in May and June, it is reliably covered with pure white flowers. Although it is not widely sold, a number of stockists are listed in the invaluable RHS Plant Finder, 2007?8, published by Dorling Kindersley. Honeysuckles have a timeless appeal, and when you include the shrubby species, examples of the genus Lonicera can be found flowering in nearly every month of the year. They are easy to propagate from seed, or cuttings taken in July and August. The 16th-century herbalist John Gerard compared the honeysuckle to the ‘nose of an elephant’, although I cannot really see the likeness myself. I recently came across a few lines about wild honeysuckle, written by John Parkinson, which I rather like: ‘Yet doe I not bring it into my garden, but I let it rest in his own place, to serve the sences that travell by it, or have no garden.’
Cothay Manor and Gardens, Greenham, Wellington, Somerset. The gardens are open from Easter to September; Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday, from 2pm to 6pm (01823 672283; www.cothaymanor.co.uk)