Small to medium-sized shrub with shimmering shiny green and copper foliage, and delicate, small yellow flowers that are produced all summer and are an important sources of nectar for bumblebees. A plant of edge habitats and anthropogenic sites (roadsides, clear-cuts, ditches), it thrives in a range of soil and light conditions, from dry to seasonally flooded, sun to shade. Native from Newfoundland to Saskatchewan, south to Virginia into the Appalachians.

Many of us were introduced to the nectaries of honeysuckle flowers when we were children. Summer’s delights were distilled into that first bead of sunlit sweetness stolen from the base of honeysuckle’s trumpet. The flower most often purloined and sampled was probably from a vining Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), an introduced ornamental now creeping steadily from intentional plantings, into the landscape, throughout New England.

Northern bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera)There are other exotic honeysuckles, also garden escapes, well-established in Maine. With the inadvertent help of birds who eat their fruit and evacuate the seeds, these honeysuckles can “travel” across fields, roads, into woods, far from their origins of cultivation. One species, European honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum), is a vine, like Japanese honeysuckle. The other non-natives are large, shambling bushes (L. maackii, L. morrowii, L. tatarica, L. x bella, L. xylosteum) that leaf out in May, produce quantities of fruit, and outcompete their neighbors which might include some of the less bumptious native bush-honeysuckles – especially the delicate American honeysuckle, Lonicera canadensis. An easy method of distinguishing native and non-native honeysuckles, at any time of year, is to examine the center of a broken branch or twig: exotic honeysuckles are hollow-stemmed; native honeysuckles have a white pith, or core.

One of our native bush-honeysuckles is placed in a different genus than its cousins the Loniceras.[1] Diervilla lonicera, along with its southern relatives Diervilla sessilifolia and D. rivularis, has seed capsules, rather than fleshy, berry-like fruits containing seeds. Diervilla lonicera, northern-bush honeysuckle, is found throughout Maine in a variety of habits. And felicitously, this indefatigable shrub is more available in nurseries, and being planted by landscapers and gardeners.[2]

Bush-honeysuckle might be overlooked when its stems are unclothed, just a haze of fine, pale branches in winter. In every other season, Diervilla lonicera charms. Nascent foliage emerges in unusual tints of coppery green and bronze; the tender new growth of stems is crimson. New leaves and branching stems, produced unstintingly throughout summer and early fall, maintain these colors; the branches arch stylishly as they lengthen.

The complexity of colors is especially appealing when bush-honeysuckle flowers. Small greenish-yellow buds appear in early June and open later in the month. Pairs and trios of flowers reside in lower leaf axils while branch tips have a long-blooming terminal cyme providing a durable feast for nectar-seeking insects, as well as hummingbirds.

While summer progresses, older foliage (lower on the branches of bush-honeysuckle) is deeper green and less silken-looking than newly manufactured growth, but a blush of red remains. In autumn a few flowers may linger while the shrub’s leaves extinguish themselves in a final blaze of yellow, orange, burgundy or scarlet.

Photograph of a bee on a bush honeysuckle blossomThe constant floral banquet benefits butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera) and any long-tongued insects who can probe for nectar. Aside from native bumblebees, (Bombus affinis, B. terricola, B. vagans) the Sphingidae (called sphinx moths as larvae, and hawk or hummingbird moths as adults[3]) sip bush-honeysuckle’s flower nectars from long straw-like mouth parts. Smaller short-tongued insect diners include the Anthophoridae (digger bees) the Megachilidae (leafcutter bees) and the Halictidae (sweat bees, Lasioglossum species). After any of these attendants have visited, and incidentally pollinated the flowers, bush-honeysuckle’s flowers turn deeper yellow, salmon, peach then red, adding other colors to the shrub’s lively palette.

Deer browse bush-honeysuckle but in most cases this encourages branching and flushes of colorful new growth. Thickets of bush-honeysuckle provide sturdy shelter for ground-nesting birds.

Diervilla lonicera’s extraordinary, long season of bloom makes the shrub a workhorse in the garden. Its height, less than four feet, combines and accommodates perennials in a traditional border. Northern bush-honeysuckles are essential in hedgerow plantings, filling the flower void when most companion native shrubs and trees are busy setting fruit. Its drought-tolerance, resilient root system, indifference to soil conditions, and ability to re-sprout, make the bush-honeysuckle a primary candidate for erosion control, or planting in difficult sites like driveway margins. Assault by snowplow does not faze Diervilla lonicera. The somewhat brittle stems may break under heavy snowload, but this seems to be a rather natural pruning and regeneration mechanism. Bush-honeysuckle, in gardens, responds well to thinning of older stems.

Once identified in the wilder landscape, bush-honeysuckle will enchant you with its surprising colors, and its thrum and wriggle of feeding bumblebees. Favorite roadside patches include a neglected strip alongside an old blueberry barren where Diervilla lonicera is spliced with Spiraea alba, white meadowsweet (Thalictrum pubescens) and Rosa carolina’s broad pink flowers, with eruptions of Thalictrum pubescens, tall meadow-rue- a fairly riotous tumble of texture and bloom. Another is a pure colony that lies across a ledge like a ferruginous blanket. Yet another wild planting sits beneath a delicate canopy of mountain maple (Acer spicatum), the bush honeysuckle’s foliage darker green in the shade and punctuated by a bright green of assorted ferns.

Diervilla lonicera spreads readily from its stoloniferous roots, forming clonal stands. Plants are easy to grow from seed, gathered in late fall when the seed capsules dry and turn dark brown. The seed is small, dark-colored with a slight greyish bloom when ripe. Seeds can be sown immediately out of doors, lightly covering the seed with sand or, stored dry in the refrigerator and sown in spring.

Visit our online store to purchase bush-honeysuckle seeds.

By Pamela Johnson

[1] The three eastern North American Diervillas were named for Doctor Marin Dièreville, a French surgeon who voyaged to Acadia, now the eastern provinces of Canada, in 1699. Little is known about Dr. Dièreville, even the accurate spellings of his first and last names. Returning to France after a year in the New World, he published an account of his sojourn Rélation du Voyage du Port Royal de l’Acadie ou de la Nouvelle France, in Rouen, in 1708. His collection of twenty-five Acadian plants found its way to Joseph Pitton de Tourneforte, and it was Tourneforte who named the North American bush-honeysuckle for Dièreville. If the adventurous doctor arrived in Port Royal in October, as he reports, he may have been in time to see a few late-season bush-honeysuckle flowers clasped by a nimbus of scarlet leaves.
[2] Diervilla lonicera is recognized by the nursery trade for its own merits and it is most often sold as a straight species, that is, not yet, widely hybridized for what plant breeders consider desirable traits they think consumers prefer. Other native species, including the southern bush-honeysuckle, Diervilla sessilifolia, are too frequently found as selected cultivars, bred for characteristics which may interfere with faunal associations (sterile, pollen-less flowers is the most notorious sales gimmick).
[3] Tallamy, Douglas W. 2007. Bringing Nature Home. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, Inc.

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