Thursday, February 3, 2011
Ring Out, Wild Bells
The flying cloud, the frosty light..."
Tennyson began his famous poem this way, and perhaps it seems odd that these lines turn my thoughts to Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). But bear with me a moment - this Florida native wildflower is one that thrives in the cooler winter weather, and from the living room window, we often see the vibrant bells outlined against a grey sky on a cool evening, or whipping in the wind on wild afternoon. Though it does well all year in Florida, Coral Honeysuckle seems to love the unpredictable ups and downs of winter.
Honeysuckles are well-known and well-loved the world over. Most people associate them with fragrant summer nights or lazy afternoons, their sweet smell accompanied by the buzzing of bees and flutter of hummingbird wings. These dreamy visions are generally inspired by the honeysuckles of Europe (Lonicera periclymenum) or Asia (Lonicera japonica), though, as L. sempervirens doesn't have much of a fragrance. This hardy evergreen bloomer seems wilder and simpler than its foreign cousins, more suited to life in the New World.
Unlike the invasive Japanese Honeysuckle, Coral Honeysuckle is friendly to Florida gardeners. It's happy to climb up a fence or clamber over a trellis, but it doesn't wander and it's easy to control. It doesn't climb using tendrils or suckers, so it won't drown out other plants and shrubs nearby. We grow ours to hide some downspouts in the butterfly garden. It does well in full or partial sun, and handles droughts, heat waves, frosts, and pretty much all other weather without blinking an eye.
Don't let its lack of obvious fragrance fool you - Coral Honeysuckle is a natural in the butterfly garden. The few hummingbirds we've spotted in My Florida Backyard have been seen feeding from this plant or a nearby firebush (Hamelia patens). The foliage is said to be a host plant for Leopard Moth caterpillars, among others. The blooms themselves are simple but lovely... brilliant red outside with a surprising splash of yellow on the inside.
Coral Honeysuckle is readily available at native plant nurseries. Avoid the non-native honeysuckles you see for sale at big-box stores and instead seek out this wonderful native, which seems to have the "sweeter manners" of which Tennyson wrote. As the poet himself said, "Ring out the false, ring in the true."