Friday, December 7, 2012
One of the four bush honeysuckles
Species name: Diervilla lonicera
Common name: northern bush honeysuckle
The northern bush honeysuckle is native to North America, from southern Canada all the way south to about Indiana. Due to land use change, it has become critically endangered in Indiana, and is on the state of Tennessee's list of endangered or threatened species. No other American states or Canadian provinces/territories have it on any kind of species red list, but I can say for certainty that I have never seen this plant in its natural habitat, only in cultivation. Whether that means I'm just not looking hard enough or in the right spots (woodlands, mostly, where it serves as shrubby ground cover), or whether the population numbers should be reevaluated for species status I don't know. I'm guessing that due to habitat loss, the population numbers of this species are declining. How rapidly and whether it's enough to put the species at risk I couldn't say.
Both species of the bush honeysuckle, different from the real bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), are used extensively in herbal medicine and are slowly making their way into modern western medicine. Extracts from the leaves and young shoots have soothing effects on mucous membranes, and drinking a tea made from these plant parts has been shown in clinical studies to be just as effective at soothing sore throats and preventing coughing fits as any cough medicine on the market. Granted, cough medicines in general are just as much a "placebo science" as they are actual medicine; a very recent study (last year) showed that people who believe they are taking cough medicine but are really just consuming sugar water, something that should actually exacerbate a sore throat and cough rather than soothe it, are just as likely to report a lessening of their symptoms as those taking real cough medicine.
Going out into the wild (or even a back yard) and picking honeysuckles to turn into a soothing tea can be incredibly dangerous, and a perfect example of why you need to be absolutely sure of the identification of a plant before you consume it. Most honeysuckles look dangerously alike, and can only be distinguished through microscopic analysis. Some species are deadly toxic, while others have reported medicinal value. If you are at all unsure of the identification of a plant, don't put it in your mouth!