Beautiful Native Plants

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Friday, February 19, 2016

One Native Plant = Three Habitat Benefits

Coral honeysuckle create a beautiful display
throughout the summer months.
While this (1 = 3 (or more)) equation is not rare in the native plant world, few accomplish this more beautifully than coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens).

This vine is native to the eastern US from Maine and Michigan south to central Florida and Texas. Since I‘m in Florida, here’s the profile & range for the state. Even though it’s not native in south Florida, many people successfully grow it there as well.

When I looked up the native range, I was surprised at the size. I’ve done a lot of hiking over the decades up and down the east coast, particularly in the mid-Atlantic and New England regions, including two years of intense field work during the mid-seventies on the Delmarva Peninsula in likely habitats when I was working on my masters degree in botany. Yet, I’d never seen this plant growing in the wild until last year in Texas--it was in a state park, and now that I think about it, it might have been planted there along the bulkhead near the boat ramp.

Florida's coral honeysuckle range
Not being aware of this plant’s range, when James Mitchner mentioned honeysuckle in “Chesapeake,” I thought he’d made a mistake.  On page 11 he wrote,
“ …and the location of brambled berry bushes, and the woody nests of eagles, and the honeysuckle twisting among the lower branches of the cedar trees.”
Since the book was published in 1979, I presumed that he’d walked around some wooded areas in Maryland, which were already covered with a tangle of Japanese honeysuckle (L. japonica) by that time, and placed the imported (and invasive) plant back to the wilds of the 1500s Maryland. Yes, coral honeysuckle is a native, but I still think he was describing the invader.

The Three Wildlife Benefits

That being said, I have a couple of these vines now growing in our yard.  I bought one plant several years ago and have taken cuttings to produce more. My husband and I particularly enjoy the vine that grows on a trellis right outside our kitchen window which is our view as we eat our meals. Let me count the ways:

Oh, the wonderful hummingbirds...
1) Hummingbirds love the long tubular flowers produced in abundance by this vine. The hummingbirds hover in front of each flower and then fly into the flowers right up to their eyeballs. The length of the flower tubes and the hummingbird beaks are perfectly matched. Having the honeysuckle near our feeder has reduced the hummer wars. If one was guarding the feeder, the others could sip some natural nectar out of sight. Sometimes butterflies are attracted to the beautiful coral flowers, but their mouthparts do allow them access to the nectar, so they don’t stay long.

2) Cardinals nested in the tangle of vines. The honeysuckle is thick because we cut back it back to just above the trellis each winter. The excitement of having baby birds reared right next to our screen porch is amazing. One year, the cardinals stopped nesting there; maybe that’s because a predator (probably a snake) found their nest one year. The cardinals have been quite successful in some other location in our yard, because we’ve had fun watching a family group where the fledglings ruffle their feathers and frantically squawk to be fed.

Coral honeysuckle berries feed the birds.
The leaves immediately below the flowers
 are perfoliate, joined at the base in a
complete ring round the shoot.
3) Late in the season after the hummingbirds have left for their (migration) vacation, the vines have produced a ton of bright orange berries. The cardinals, blue jays and mocking birds have been flitting around the vines to feed. The cardinals are the most common and usually feed as a group.

My advice?  Plant some extremely easy-to-grow coral honeysuckle to beautify your yard and to attract the birds, too.

Natives: more than meets the eye

© Ginny Stibolt