Oh, honeysuckle! We love it and we hate it. For some, honeysuckle conjures up memories of grandma’s porch on hot summer nights. For others, it’s the loss of a favorite tree choked by invasive honeysuckle. It seems like there’s no in-between when it comes to this classic plant.
When I was planning my front garden, honeysuckle was high on the list. But everyone started giving me conflicting information. Is honeysuckle invasive? Are bush types more invasive than vines? Can I grow honeysuckle without destroying my local ecosystem?
It’s actually not as confusing as it sounds, especially if you don’t have six different people telling your seven different things. Here are the facts:
Invasive vs. Non-Invasive Honeysuckle
All honeysuckle plants are part of the Caprifoliaceae family of plants, with most falling into the Lonicera genus. But a few, including most of the bush honeysuckles, are members of the Diervilla genus.
Diervilla genus honeysuckles are important because they’re native to North America. These bush honeysuckles are an essential part of our ecosystem. They’re non-invasive plants that provide food for our native insects. They’re especially essential to the larvae of the small engrailed moth (Ectropis crepuscularia) and the common emerald moth (Geometrinae).
In the Lonicera genus, where most honeysuckles belong, are a variety of beautiful, fragrant, and non-invasive honeysuckles like trumpet (L. sempervirens), common (L. periclymenum), and honeyberry (L. caerulea).
But, a few of the Lonicera genus are real pests. L. japonica, L. maackii, L. morrowii, and L. tatarica are invasive honeysuckles. These species became invasive because they don’t belong in North America and have no natural restraints in the ecosystem to limit their spread.
In their native environments, these honeysuckles aren’t able to spread and choke out all other plants. But here, they can. And that’s exactly what they do.
How do Invasive Honeysuckle Plants Spread?
Honeysuckles are often quick-growing plants. That’s one of the reasons we love trellising them. They can cover the trellis or create a quick, easy privacy screen in little time. Many honeysuckle varieties also produce berries that attract birds. The birds eat the berries, scattering the seeds far and wide.
This combination of fast growth and easily spread seeds gives honeysuckle a natural advantage. When you add in a lack of the natural checks and balances that keep native, quick-spreading plants from taking over, you have a recipe for invasive spreading.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only way invasive honeysuckle spreads. L. japonica, or Japanese honeysuckle, is easy to buy at many nurseries and plant supply stores. Often labeled ‘Hall’s Prolific’ honeysuckle, this known-invasive species is marketed to new gardeners as an ‘easy to grow’ or “no-fail” honeysuckle vine.
In the past, Amur honeysuckle (L. maackii) was planted as erosion control by maintenance crews and quickly took over. It can also be found in nurseries. Greenhouses sell it under the cultivar names ‘Red Rem’ and ‘Erubescens.’
When you’re shopping for a honeysuckle plant to add to the garden, look at the binomial name. Don’t buy a honeysuckle without checking to make sure it’s not an invasive variety.
What’s the Big Deal?
Honeysuckle is beautiful and fragrant. So maybe you’re wondering if it really matters. After all, who doesn’t want a sweet-scent effusion of blossoms?
It’s true that even the invasive honeysuckles smell lovely. They have beautiful little flowers and lush foliage. Lounging in the evening under fragrant honeysuckle makes everyone feel a little bit like a character in a Victorian novel.
But invasive honeysuckles don’t just create romantic settings of lush gardens and heavily scented summer nights. They actually take steps to make sure there’s no competition nearby.
That’s right, invasive honeysuckles grow so thickly that they easily choke out any slower-growing plants. Since invasive honeysuckles tend to leaf out earlier in the spring than native plants, it’s easy for them to claim an area before anyone else has a chance to grow. Some invasive varieties even send out toxic chemical compounds into the soil, stunting or killing nearby plants.
Once invasive honeysuckle lays claim to an area, all the understory plants are done for. For us, that means tender, endangered plants like lady’s slipper and trillium are at risk. Plants such as milkweed, which are necessary to specific pollinators, are choked out as well.
Local plants and the animals that depend on them can’t compete with invasive honeysuckle’s underhanded tactics.
Getting Rid of Invasive Honeysuckle
Maybe you have a yard full of invasive honeysuckle? It’s hard to clear out established honeysuckle plants. But if you want to put in a real garden, or slow the spread of this species, you can do it.
Don’t expect this to be a one-year process. Invasive honeysuckle will be back, year after year. It’s kind of like the flu. Every year you make some elderberry syrup and watch for signs, treat the flu if it comes up, and then repeat. But if you clear out well the first year, it’s like starting flu season with a healthy immune system and plenty of vitamin C!
So let’s start strong.
1. Seasonal Removal
The best times to clear out honeysuckle are in the early spring and late fall. In these seasons, it’s easier to see the whole plant and remove it. Honeysuckle has leaves in early spring and late fall, when most other plants don’t. So do most of your removal at the beginning and end of the growing season.
Get out there and cut the plant down to the roots anytime you see it pop up, but especially focus on these times. Use trimmers, pruners, clippers, or whatever you’ve got. Just make sure that plant is pruned down as much as you can.
2. Pull Up By the Roots
Whenever possible, remove the whole plant. Pull up young honeysuckle plants by the root and dispose of the entire thing. Honeysuckle can easily regrow if you leave the roots in the ground.
If your invasive honeysuckle plants are well established, it’ll be a lot harder to remove the root of the plant. Sometimes, you can dig up the whole root, but more often, you’ll need to kill the root before removing it.
3. Cut Back the Stem
If the plant is too established to easily pull up, cut it back to the ground and then kill the root. You can treat the root with an herbicide to kill it or cover the whole area with heavy plastic and leave it for the summer.
I prefer the latter method. Covering large swathes of garden with plastic will kill not only the established roots but will also prevent new honeysuckle plants from sprouting. While you’ll have an unsightly, plastic-coated garden for a summer, the end result is a weed and honeysuckle-free patch of earth.
Many people recommend glyphosate to remove invasive honeysuckle. It’s a common treatment, but personally, I’m not comfortable using something linked to so many health issues.
If you have kids, pets, a family history of cancer, liver issues, asthma, or infertility – keep the glyphosate out of the garden. If you do use glyphosate, avoid growing vegetables or fruits in the garden for a few years to let it leach out of the soil.
While invasive honeysuckle is hard to remove without resorting to glyphosate, you can do it. Your garden and your family will thank you for doing it safely. The important thing is to remove the entire root system. Once you’ve cleared the area – whether you use herbicides or not – you’ll have to check back each year for signs that new invasive honeysuckles have taken root.
Remember, honeysuckle spreads easily by seed. If birds or deer have access to honeysuckle vines nearby, they may spread them back into your yard. So check back each spring to see if there are new honeysuckle plants in your yard.
Choose Non-Invasive Honeysuckle
Now that you know to avoid invasive honeysuckle and how to clear it out, let’s talk about the good honeysuckles. You can still plant a gorgeous trellis of sweet-scented vines in your yard. All you have to do is pick the right variety.
There are so many Native, non-invasive varieties of honeysuckle to choose from.
Within the trumpet honeysuckle variety, ‘Major Wheeler’ is one of the most popular cultivars. ‘Major Wheeler’ has beautiful, bright red blossoms and a heady scent. It’s hardy in Zones 4-8 and can climb up to 8 feet tall. It tends to spread to about 6-8 feet wide as well, making it perfect for walls and fences.
Among common honeysuckles, ‘Peaches and Cream’ produces stunning pink and white flowers with an intoxicating scent. If you’re growing primarily for scent, ‘Peaches and Cream’ is one of the best varieties. It’s a little more compact than ‘Major Wheeler’ – growing only to about 6 feet tall and staying slender, with only about a 2-foot spread.
Honeyberries are quite a different form of honeysuckle. While most honeysuckles produce berries that are toxic to humans, honeyberries are edible and delicious.
These plants bush instead of vining, and they produce tasty, bluish berries. Honeyberry flowers don’t have a very strong scent, but they open early, giving bees an early food source. ‘Indigo Treat’ and ‘Aurora’ are two fantastic varieties to grow if you’re interested in growing this delightful honeysuckle variety.