Choosing your honeysuckle
Most honeysuckles we grow in the garden are ramblers and scramblers with twining stems topped by slender, tubular flowers. These flowers are designed to attract moths and butterflies or hummingbirds, with long tongues, although bees do bite through the back of the flower in frustration.
Hummingbird-pollinated flowers come in brighter colours, such as red, orange and vivid-yellow, but tend to have little or no fragrance. Those pollinated by moths and butterflies are paler but highly fragrant, especially in the evening, so when selecting your honeysuckle decide whether or not you want fragrance or not. Most of us love the sweet perfume which travels on warm, summer evenings so these are perfect near seats and gateways.
There are 240 species of honeysuckle, also known as woodbine, mostly hardy, and they mostly grow in China, North America, Europe and the Mediterranean. Not all twine, some are shrubby, but if they have paler flowers they are very likely to be fragrant. The flowers will also have an abundance of nectar and this gives the plant the common name of honeysuckle because it’s possible to upend the flower and drink, or suck, the nectar.
Although they are extremely useful twiners, they do take their time to get established, so they are not quick fixes. However they are well worth the wait because these hardy, long-lived twiners can be used on pergolas, up walls, or to scale trees.
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How to grow
Where to plant and how to grow your honeysuckle will depend on the variety you have chosen so check the instructions on the plant you buy.
European honeysuckles climb into the sun and they do not mind having their roots in a cool position. They will happily grow alongside shrub roses without smothering them. They’re undemanding and easy, but they do lose their foliage in autumn. They generally resent pruning.
Twining Mediterranean woodbines
Mediterranean varieties have evolved in hotter, drier conditions and, although they are suitable for drier gardens, they become invasive in damp gardens. On the plus side they tend to be semi-deciduous, so retain some leaf during winter. The leaves are downy to the touch.
American honeysuckles can suffer from aphids and mildew, so are trickier to grow. They do best in sunny positions.
Young plants should have their stems shortened after planting, to encourage bushy and vigorous growth. After this only prune honeysuckles if you feel there is too much dead wood.
When they bloom
Climbing honeysuckles flower in summer. Shrubby honeysuckles can flower in late winter, spring or summer.
Take softwood cuttings in late spring.
(Above) Lonicera periclymenum, common honeysuckle
Honeysuckle and woodbine varieties
Twining English woodbines (Lonicera periclymenum)
Known as the Common woodbine or honeysuckle, this deciduous twiner flowers in midsummer, producing rhubarb and custard coloured flowers that are sweetly fragrant. Red berries follow and these are highly appreciated by blackbirds and thrushes. It’s found all over Europe and in Morocco and Shakespeare’s Warwickshire is a stronghold. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Titania says to Bottom “Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms, so doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle gently entwist.”
Lonicera periclymenum ‘Graham Thomas’
It’s appropriate then that this form was discovered in a Warwickshire hedgerow in the 1960s, by plantsman Graham Thomas (1909 – 2003), just a few miles form Stratford-upon -Avon. It stood out due to its greyer foliage and custard-yellow flowers, typically at their best July. It’s less vigorous than the others, but wonderful grown close to Rose ‘Buff Beauty’, a fragrant buff-apricot Hybrid Musk rose.
Lonicera periclymenum ‘Belgica’
Known as Early Dutch honeysuckle, this earlier-flowering rhubarb and custard coloured woodbine can produce flowers in late-spring. It’s been grown in British gardens since the 17th century.
Lonicera periclymenum ‘Serotina’
Known as Late Dutch honeysuckle, this has darker flowers in shades of rich-red. It is four weeks later on average, so plant both if you can (‘Belgica’ and ‘Serotina’) for a long flowering period that will coincide with roses and continue until early autumn.
Lonicera periclymenum ‘Sweet Sue’
Found by Roy Lancaster on a family holiday in Sweden, whilst playing football with his sons, this creamy honeysuckle named for his wife is well worth growing for its off-white flowers.
(Above) Lonicera etrusca, Etruscan honeysuckle berries
Twining Mediterranean woodbines
Suitable for dry gardens.
Lonicera etrusca ‘Superba’
Best grown in a hot, dry position otherwise it’s floppy and rampant. The flowers open to white with hints of red, before turning apricot-yellow. The foliage is greyer with perfoliate upper leaves that encircle the stem like an oval saucer. Introduced 1750 and it lives up to its name - superba - because it’s so abundant and full of fragrant flower.
Lonicera etrusca ‘Donald Waterer’
Found in the French Pyrenees by Donald Waterer in 1973, this has smaller downier leaves and much brighter red flowers.
Twining Asian honeysuckles
A hardy evergreen climber, noted by Augustine Henry in west China but introduced in 1905 by Ernest Wilson. Red flowers and leathery foliage, followed by black berries. Good in shade.
Another Chinese introduction from Ernest Wilson, but in 1900, this long-tubed honeysuckle has bright golden flowers in early summer. Loves scrambling into trees.
Do best in sunny positions but can be tricky to grow as they suffer from aphids and mildew.
Lonicera x heckrottii
This hybrid between L. x americana and L. sempervirens is the most commonly grown honeysuckle in America. The waxy blue leaves support carmine flowers, with yellow insides to the trumpets. It’s hardy and slightly fragrant and not dissimilar to the flowers on our native honeysuckle.
Lonicera x brownii ‘Dropmore Scarlet’
This non-fragrant honeysuckle generally produces two flushes of flower, in summer and again in autumn. It’s susceptible to aphid attack and this can mar the rounded green leaves. This is a scarlet form of moderate vigour. Good on a trellis and can be semi-evergreen.
Lonicera x tellmanniana
Arguably the showiest honeysuckle of all, with copper-yellow flowers in summer emerging from red buds. Often used to back a ‘hot’ border of tropical reds and yellows, this needs a bright position to flower well. A hybrid of L. tragophylla and L. sempervirens, the flowers are extremely long and large.
Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’
One of the finest winter-flowering shrubs of all, with ivory-white flowers that appear on bare branches at first, before the leaves join in. Honeybees love it and this cross, raised by Hilliers in 1966, is the most select because it’s medium sized and flowers from midwinter onwards.
Visit our plants section for more growing guides.
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