Saturday, September 29, 2012

The binder of wood: European honeysuckle

Species name: Lonicera periclymenum

Common name: European honeysuckle, woodbine

Location: Ontario

Right away the common name of this species should strike you as a non-native species, and you would be correct. I still haven't quite figured out why, but any species in the genus Lonicera, no matter where it's native to, seems to become a very popular garden plant in both North America and Europe. It's probably because of the intoxicating smell, especially towards nightfall (I'll be one of the first to admit that I absolutely love the smell of honeysuckles and lilacs). Unfortunately, almost every species of honeysuckle, including most species native to North America, are incredibly invasive except under very specific conditions. Most honeysuckles require their roots to be in the shade (they grow very shallowly under the surface of the ground), while their leaf tips in full sun. This makes them incredibly effective climbers, and spread out on top of plants to completely engulf them and use them as a support to grow. Honeysuckles that are more shrub-like instead of vine-like usually only contain leaves on the very outside of the shrub for this very reason (but it's very difficult to tell upon first glance since they have such dense growth). The most impressive invasive honeysuckle in North America is the trumpet honeysuckle which I'll profile in a blog post next month.

Because of the intense smell and the unusual shape of the flowers, it should suggest to you that honeysuckle flowers are pollinated by very specific pollinators. In fact, one of the reasons why the European honeysuckle is so successful as a plant species is because its native pollinator, a moth, has been an invasive moth species in North America longer than the plant has been here! Before the arrival of the European honeysuckle, the moth would feed on native honeysuckles and often out-compete native moths for nectar. It's amazing how one small change to an ecosystem can completely throw things out of balance. Now that the plant is here the moth is happy, and our native moths can go back to pollinating our native honeysuckles, for better or for worse! Watching a nocturnal moth unfurl its "tongue" (called a proboscis) to reach a nectary is fascinating. If you haven't yet observed the phenomenon (and don't mind getting eaten alive by mosquitos; wearing bug spray can deter some moth species), you should go find a honeysuckle and camp out beside it close to sunset during the summer months. If you'd rather just watch a youtube video, here is a good one (best viewing of the proboscis is around 0:30).