Lonicera (shrubby species and primary hybrids)

Commonly known as honeysuckles, the genus Lonicera contains many garden-worthy plants, often wonderfully-scented and flowering from mid-winter to late spring. The genus includes the familiar climbing honeysuckles, but our collection concentrates on the shrubby honeysuckles which form the greater part of the genus. The genus contains about 180 species found primarily in the northern hemisphere.

Our collection of over 100 species and primary hybrids represents the majority of those in cultivation. It provided a valuable resource for the preparation of the Lonicera account for the European Garden Flora by the then Garden taxonomist Dr Li Zhu.
The major part of the collection can be found in a series of island beds close to the Scented Garden, while the winter-flowering species are also represented in the Winter Garden.

One of the most beautiful species is Lonicera maackii from China and Korea. It forms a large shrub and from late May to June the branches are laden with white, richly-fragrant flowers that fade to yellow. An exceptionally large, tree-like specimen at nearly 6 metres tall can be found in the Humphrey Gilbert-Carter area, which represents the original plantings of shrubby honeysuckles in the Garden. This is forma podocarpa, a later introduction made by Ernest Wilson in 1900. The flowers, borne high above the leaves, are best viewed from distance but a close-up inspection also reveals beautiful, deeply-fissured bark. The typical variant is represented in the Lonicera collection, where regular pruning maintains it as a multi-stemmed shrub.

Several species are very attractive and deserve to be more widely planted. Originating from western North America, Lonicera involucrata bears yellow tubular flowers set against contrasting red bracts and followed by shiny black berries. Lonicera vesicaria from Korea is distinguished by its bristly young shoots, but grown also for its large creamy-white flowers that age to yellow and are followed by orange berries.

Most honeysuckles are deciduous but a few are evergreen. Best known is the smalled leaved L. nitida, widely cultivated as a hedging plant and used for this purpose on the southern boundary of the Winter Garden. Equally popular as a low growing ground-covering shrub is L. pileata, the bright green, new leaves in spring contrasting with the older dark green foliage.

Perhaps the shrubby honeysuckles are best loved for the bewitching fragrance of several winter-flowering species, employed to great effect in the Winter Garden. The tangy, lemon meringue scent of Lonicera x purpusii at the entrances entices visitors in, while high on the south-facing bank, there is a lovely example of the seldom-seen Lonicera setifera, collected by renowned plantsman Roy Lancaster. The dainty, tubular flowers, flared at the tip have a light but lingering fragrance. The trumpet-shaped creamy flowers of L. infundibulum are equally worth seeking out in both the Winter Garden and collection island beds, along with the unusual pink flowers of L. gracillipes from Japan.

Most shrubby honeysuckles are easy to cultivate in most ordinary garden soils, flowering best in sun or light shade. Given space they can form large shrubs which allow the stems to fully develop the often attractive bark. If space is at a premium they can be pruned, best carried out by removing the larger and older stems so to retain their natural shape and form. They also respond to hard pruning by reducing the stems close to ground level which is useful for re-invigorating older plants. Feeding and mulching is only necessary after hard pruning, otherwise it can encourage soft leafy growth at the expense of flowers.

Not all the species of shrubby honeysuckles can be considered garden worthy, but the sheer diversity of flower types provides a fascinating insight into the various types of bees that are the primary pollinators. The scent of the flowers is an attractant and particularly strong in the winter-flowering species when few pollinating bees are flying. The form of the flowers and particularly the length of the tube reflect the different short- to long-tongued bees that pollinate the flowers.

Lonicera, Li, D Z (2000) in The European Garden Flora, vol VI: 436-452, J Cullen et al (eds), Cambridge University Press.

Lonicera setifera, Petitt, S in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine 23(1): 51—55.

Further reading
Travels in China, a plantsman’s paradise, Lancaster R (1989)

Lonicera, Bradshaw, D. (1996), published by and available from Plant Heritage.