Naturalist Nicholas Culpepper made a valid observation when he noted that “God and nature made nothing in vain.”
He was speaking of honeysuckles, one of the first plants to leaf out in early spring, when he identified one of its detriments. Culpepper’s unfortunate observation was that “the chewing of a leaf is more likely to cause a sore mouth and throat than cure it.”
Nick does find a bright side. Honeysuckle “is the herb of Mercury, and appropriated to the lungs; the celestial Crab claims dominion of it, neither is it a foe to the Lion; if the lungs be afflicted by Jupiter, this is your cure. It is fitting a conserve made of the flowers should be kept in every gentlewoman’s house; I know no better cure for the asthma than this besides it takes away the evil of the spleen: provokes urine, procures speedy delivery of women in travail, relieves cramps, convulsions, and palsies and whatsoever griefs come of cold or obstructed perspiration; if you make use of it as an ointment, it will clear the skin of morphew, freckles, and sunburnings, or whatever else discolours it, and the maids will love it.”
The affections of the household help notwithstanding, the honeysuckles that already have gotten their leaves on are not the heroes of spring. Rather, they are early invaders trying to out-compete the native plants by getting a jump start on photosynthesis.
Two varieties of nonnative honeysuckles are found on the Vineyard, Japanese and Morrow’s honeysuckle. They are easy to tell apart. The Japanese variety is the creeping vine, while Morrow’s is a woody shrub with light brown peeling bark that can reach almost 10 feet. Morrow’s has opposite leaves with fuzzy undersides. Next month, both honeysuckles will sport familiar trumpet-shaped white flowers that turn yellow with age.
Honeysuckles were introduced from Asia as ground cover, for erosion control and as food for wildlife. In an ironic twist of fate, it is now known that the bright red berries that are abundant in the fall are actually bird junk food. Ornithologists have discovered that the berries are not high enough in fat or nutrient-rich enough to provide sufficient energy for migrating birds. I read that chickens will happily consume them (I don’t want to share in the fowl feast as the berries are poisonous to humans).
The flowers are famous for their heady fragrance. Samuel Pepys describes these flowers as “the bugles that blow scent instead of sound.”
Even if the scent doesn’t appeal to you, your cat may beg to differ. One variety of honeysuckle contains nepetalactone, the active ingredient in catnip. Honeysuckle was also thought to incite passion and erotic dreams in young Victorian girls, who were forbidden to bring the plant into the house. In a Victorian double standard, young men were encouraged to use hazel wood that has been squeezed and distorted by the twining of honeysuckle vines to make walking sticks for going courting.
Maybe God did have a good reason to create honeysuckle after all — for wine, women, and as Pepys said, the odiferous song of those trumpet shaped flowers.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary.