Bush Honeysuckle Berries~Junk Food For Birds

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.

Honeysuckle forest in the wayback

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!

Lonicera maackii

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!

After removal

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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  1. says

    Good for you on all scores! Here in Florida we have a very similar problem with Brazilian pepper. The birds love it, but it outcompetes the natives with all the attendant problems you mentioned, minus one. Another serious drawback of the non-native bushes is that altho the adult birds may enjoy the berries, when it is time to raise the next generation, fledglings of almost all species must be fed an insect diet. The non-native does not provide a food base for the local insects to use. So not only is not helping the insect base for the parent birds, it is also taking away space that is needed to keep the local food chain working.

  2. says

    The regrettably named “Southern bush honeysuckle” (Diervilla sessilifolia) is a hard-to-find native which I’m rather fond of–I bought one from our local botanical garden and it’s tough as nails and will take dry clay hillsides that would constitute plant abuse on any other species. (Apparently it’s one of the first pioneers on strip-mined areas, so it’s a scar-healing kinda shrub.) But I’ve found myself reluctant to sing its praises, because there’s fifty zillion things CALLED bush honeysuckle out there, and all of the others are bad.

    I make very sympathetic noises about your infestation!
    UrsulaV recently posted..Seedy Dealings

    • says

      Ursula, Thank you for the sympathy! I know I’ve said this before~But, forget calling Nashville Music City USA~our new name needs to be “Invasives are Us”. I like Southern Bush Honeysuckle and think we need to promote its use every chance we get! Since common names seem to cause problems we can just refer to it as Diervilla! Gail
      Gail recently posted..October Blue Sky Weather For November Bloom Day

  3. says

    Hi, Gail
    I am sympathizing with you way over in Philadelphia. I volunteer in habitat restoration in the Wissahickon Forest of Philadelphia and Japanese Honeysuckle is everywhere.

    We remove it in the warm months when we can identify the leaves and plant native trees and shrubs in the fall to give the invasives no place to call “home”.

    But, we will win. Keep up the good work. Your garden is beauty, anyway.

  4. Ellen says

    I visited Nashville for the first time last year and I was amazed at how bush honeysuckle had taken over the understory. Here in Georgia we have chinese privet that “performs” a similar function – you have my sympathies!

  5. says

    I share your pain. When I moved to our three wooded acres in 1987, there were several shrubs with numerous red berries that attracted birds. It took me a few years to realize that this was not a good thing. I rarely use herbicides, but make an exception for large honeysuckle which are almost impossible to dig. In early spring when the leaves first appear, my husband cuts them down about a foot from the ground and drags the branches to the brush pile (great habitat). I make several deep furrows with a pruning saw to each stump and paint it with glyphosate. No spraying, so no chemicals on the ground or on other plants. (I learned this trick from The Nature Conservancy.) The next spring, we check to make sure there are no sprouts and the dead stumps can be kicked over. This works with autumn olive, another invasive shrub in our area.
    Earth Girl recently posted..Pegs Personal Story

  6. John Reif says

    John in Carrollton, Illinois

    I have sprayed, cut down, and the honeysuckle will not die. What do you do to kill this bush?

    Thank you


  7. says

    We’ve been having to remove Japanese honeysuckle that invaded the school woodlands — every time we think we’re done, we discover another vine that’s still alive and thriving. The best we can do is try to get as many roots out of the ground as possible.

    We are fortunate in Texas to have a couple of native honeysuckles, a vine called Coral Honeysuckle and a white shrub called Western White Honeysuckle (Lonicera albiflora), both quite lovely.
    Meredith O’Reilly recently posted..Emergency Bug Hunt


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