Bush honeysuckle has been my gardening nemesis since I decided to let my suburban yard revert to the oak/hickory forest that was here 60 years ago. Our back yard was filled with tall canopy trees, what passed for lawn and a small bit of the former forest tucked in the way back. In my new gardener naivete I thought that we could stop mowing and native shrubs and understory trees would grow. We had no idea that letting it be would mean we would invite bush honeysuckle to move in and take over.
It didn’t take long for a honeysuckle forest to get established. Lonicera maackii rapidly overtook the backyard, forming a dense shrub layer that crowded and shaded out native plant species that might have grown there. Each year it got denser and thicker. I would chop it down and it would return like some Hydra monster!
When I looked around, I realized that the honeysuckle was everywhere. In every yard, in every ditch, in the parks and in the woodlands nearby. Research revealed that it was a major invasive in the Southeast. In fact, it’s an ecological threat to native plant communities and listed on Tennessee’s Exotic Pest Council as a significant threat!
Bush honeysuckle is a poster child for successful invasives!
~~It rapidly moves in an area and takes over, forming a dense shrub layer that crowds and shades out native species.
~~It alters the environment: Scientists suspect that bush honeysuckle produces an allelopathic chemical that suppresses the growth of surrounding vegetation.
~~It out competes native vegetation: Their leaves appear early in the spring and remain into late fall, giving bush honeysuckle a competitive advantage over native plants. It’s even thought that their flowers are sweeter, thus attracting more pollinators then the native shrubs and flowers. Consequently, natives aren’t able to set enough fruit.
~~Rapid reproduction and high dispersal ability: Look at the seeds one bush can produce! The fruit of bush honeysuckle are high in carbohydrates and birds in my yard seem to love it. Over 20 different species of birds feed on it…including the Bluebirds. (source)
Here’s the rub….their fruits are not the high fat-nutrient rich food that migratory birds need to make their long flights….That diet comes from the fruit of native plants. Plants that disappear when bush honeysuckle moves in and takes over a plant community. (Clayandlimestone.com)
More bad news for the birds… The very successful invasive bush honeysuckle creates a denser shade than native shrubs, thus reducing both plant diversity and nest sites for many forest interior species…resulting in a decline in the bird populations. It’s a domino effect upon diversity!
The solution for all our gardens is constant removal. The reality is that I cannot keep them from growing in my garden. They are everywhere and birds drop the seeds all over my woodland! Initially we hired a crew to remove as many of the shrubs from the garden as was affordable. Now, I’m on a maintenance program and dig them up when they are quite small and easier to pop out of the ground. I could use an herbicide, but, I prefer to not introduce chemicals into my garden. It’s a lot of work, but it sure has been worth it!
Then I plant endemics that provide berries that I know are nutrient rich fats and not junk food! Rough leaved dogwood/Cornus drummondii, Spicebush/Lindera benzoin, native viburnums, native ilex, juniperus, chockberry/Aronia, sumacs, pokeberry and myricas. For more on great berry producing plants see Not All Berries Are Created Equal.
I may never be able to rid my garden of bush honeysuckle, but I can take what I’ve learned and make sure anything I do plant makes good ecological sense!
Gail Eichelberger of Clay and Limestone has a beautiful wildlife garden in Middle Tennessee.
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