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Honeysuckle in the valley

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By Christine Tailer
HCP columnist

For a few fleeting days, the valley was washed in colors, red, yellow, orange and even some still lingering green, and then the wind blew and the rain fell and the trees were suddenly bare. Even the sky looked whitewashed and barren. 

It seemed that there was no color to be found anywhere, until my eye was caught by a splash of bright red. These were berries about the size of large peas that clung to thin vines that curiously still held on to yellowed leaves.

These red berries are not few and far between. I quickly realized that they are absolutely everywhere. They reach from behind the rock wall into the yard beside the house. They climb the pasture fence and arch out into the field. They line the sides of the creek valley road and stretch from the forest floor up into the sky, far over my head. 

They are truly ubiquitous, and then I realized that I know exactly what they are. Even as a city child I had known this plant. I had loved to pick its white flowers, and pluck off the small green nodule at the petals’ base, pull out the long stamen, and slip a sweet drop of nectar onto the tip of my tongue. Ahh, the taste of honeysuckle, but as a city child, this sweet taste was all I knew.

I now know that honeysuckle is considered highly invasive, though some species are actually native to North America. Native honeysuckle has white or yellow downturned flowers that always grow in pairs, while foreign introduced honeysuckle sports a single white, yellow, or even pink flower, and because of honeysuckle’s ability to easily spread, they are all now considered to be significant pests in northern latitudes all across the world. I certainly know that I have come to consider honeysuckle quite a nuisance.

Granted, even though honeysuckle nectar is certainly sweet, it is of no use to short tongued pollinators, such as the honey bee. The nectar simply lies too deep inside the flower for short tongued bees to reach, though butterflies and hummingbirds can dip their long tongues far into the flowers and reach the sweet nectar. I found it interesting that the long-tongued pollinators who inhabit our neck of the woods, only choose to dine on native honeysuckle.

I was curious why honeysuckle has become so invasive, but with just a bit of research I came to understand. It seems that honeysuckle flourishes in almost every type of soil, and once growing, quickly develops an extensive root system that is difficult to pull up and is extremely resistant to flooding or storm damage.

Then, as I already had realized, the bright berries are extremely attractive, not only to my eye, but to wildlife, especially birds, who enjoy dining on the bright berries, and then flying away and spreading the seeds in their droppings. 

This avian spread has led me to deal with unwanted patches of honeysuckle; no, let me rephrase that, veritable forests of honeysuckle that wreak havoc across our farm. They smother and tear up the ancient stone wall that runs up the hillside beside our cabin. They grow with wild abandon along the pasture fence, ng their way through the wires, and creating a task that is nothing short of a tedious nightmare of patient clearing.

I had probably already realized in the back of my mind, and so was not surprised to learn, that honeysuckle, like so many other invasive species, is a pro at smothering out native flora. Walking through the woods, I have often come across a young tree struggling to survive because a honeysuckle vine has spiraled up its trunk and is choking off its life. Granted, such saplings are easily cut down and turned into beautiful walking sticks, but such a tree will no longer provide either nutrition or habitat to forest wildlife.

Not only trees, but other forest pants are smothered as well. Towering honeysuckle shades out the lower growing plants on the forest floor, while the shorter honeysuckle marches boldly across the ground, choking out whatever it finds in its path. Honeysuckle, with its gentle name and sweet nectar, thus steals both home and food, from the forest’s other inhabitants.

So, the other day, I put on my work gloves, and stood at the pasture fence, snipping, tugging, and unweaving the tangled honeysuckle vines that were growing there. The sky overhead was bright blue. 

The air was decidedly crisp, and the horses and cattle kept me wonderful company, but after several hours, and the realization that my fingers were decidedly achy, I had only cleared a few sections of fence line. I’ll confess that it did occur to me to relent, and bathe the tangled vines in a chemical spray and blast them to oblivion, but no. For the past twenty years that we’ve called the creek valley home, we’ve not used any chemicals, of any kind. No need to start now. It really was a beautiful day, and I sighed, and settled into my task, and just kept on picking away.

Christine Tailer is an attorney and former city dweller who moved several years ago, with her husband, Greg, to an off-grid farm in Ohio south-central Ohio. Visit them on the web at straightcreekvalleyfarm.com. 

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