Out My Backdoor: Can’t-Miss Honeysuckle

Coral Honeysuckle
Coral honeysuckle (Terry W. Johnson)

By Terry W. Johnson

We are constantly searching for plants that beautify our yards. And when we stumble across one that is gorgeous, benefits wildlife and is low maintenance, we know we have located a real treasure.

Unfortunately, this hunt often leads toward plants that are native to such places as the Far East and South America. Rarely does one of these exotics fit the bill. And often the answer may be growing right here in Georgia.

One plant that offers what many of us are looking for is a native species called coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). This woody vine also goes by the name woodbine, mailbox vine and trumpet honeysuckle.

Coral honeysuckle commonly grows in the Georgia Piedmont and Coastal Plain. It is so highly thought of by native plant experts it was named the Virginia Native Plant Society’s 2014 Plant of the Year. Closer to home, the Georgia Native Plant Society honored coral honeysuckle as their Plant of the Year in 2019. Coral honeysuckle is also considered one of the best plants homeowners can use to grow on fences, arbors and trellises.

Humankind’s admiration for coral honeysuckle is not something new. Native Americans were the first to use the plant for medicinal purposes. According to historians, the plant’s leaves would be chewed to a pulp and spread on a person’s skin to ease the pain caused by bee stings. In addition, dried coral honeysuckle leaves were smoked or heated in water to brew a medicine that supposedly offered relief from coughs and sore throats. These practices were later adopted by the first European colonists.

One of the gardeners of King Charles I was so smitten by the vine’s beauty he sent plants collected in what is now Virginia back to England in the 1600s for use as ornamentals.

Coral honeysuckle vines typically grow from 3 to 20 feet long. They cloaked in glossy leaves, some of which remain on the plant throughout the winter. While that doesn’t sound like anything to write home about, the feature that makes this plant so special is its flowers. The coral honeysuckle’s slender tubular blooms are about 2 inches long and arranged in whorled clusters of two to four flowers. The long flowers are red on the outside. However, if you are into them you will find they range in color from orange to yellow and red.

In my neck of the woods (the lower Piedmont), coral honeysuckle usually blooms from March into September. This year it began blooming in February. Some years it is still blooming in December. The blooming period can be extended if the plant is pruned soon after the spent blossoms die. The reason for this is flowers are produced on new wood.
While they are blooming, the flowers produce pollen and nectar. The ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the many wild pollinators that visit the flowers. In fact, the long slender blossoms favor hummingbirds.

One of the things I like most about coral honeysuckle is that it’s one of the best sources of nectar available to the first hummingbirds that arrive in my backyard each spring. Most of the plants we see blooming at this time of the year do not produce copious amounts of nectar: Coral honeysuckle helps fill that void.

The list of other pollinators that visit the plant also includes some butterflies (e.g., cloudless sulphur), flies, wasps, ants and both snowberry clearwing and hummingbird clearwing moths. (It is believed that hummingbirds also feed on small insects that enter tubular blossoms). Bees, including some of the bumblebees, visit the red flowers. Interestingly, honeybees shy away from the plant.

Coral honeysuckle is a caterpillar host plant for the spring azure butterfly and snowberry clearwing moth. Don’t rake the leaves blanketing the ground under a stand of coral honeysuckle. The reason for this is snowberry clearwing moth cocoons spend the winter in the leaf litter beneath the vines.

Coral honeysuckle also bears a crop of small red berries. The berries are gobbled up by the American goldfinch, purple finch, northern bobwhite, hermit thrush, American robin, cardinal, orchard oriole, evening grosbeak, Baltimore oriole, eastern bluebird, northern mockingbird, cedar waxwing and gray catbird. Fortunately, white-tailed deer infrequently browse coral honeysuckle leaves and vines.

Coral honeysuckle is an ideal vine to plant for many Georgia yards. While it will grow in partial shade, it produces the most blossoms in full sun. It prefers sinking its roots in fertile soil, although it also grows in the acidic clay soils common to many regions of Georgia. A dash of fertilizer will also encourage blooming.

While the plant can be grown as a ground cover, it does best when grown adjacent to something it can climb. I will never forget visiting my wife’s cousin and her family in Florida. Coral honeysuckle was growing on a fence bordering their front yard. To this day, I have never seen a healthier stand of coral honeysuckle in full bloom. Scores of hummingbirds had found this food bonanza and, as we sat on our hosts’ front porch, we were mesmerized by the sight of a squadron of rubythroats continually flying from red blossom to red blossom.

I have often wondered why this beautiful plant has not found its way into more Georgia home landscapes. Perhaps it is because when folks hear the word honeysuckle, they immediately think of that dreaded invasive import the Japanese honeysuckle. Believe me, the only thing coral honeysuckle shares with Japanese honeysuckle is the name honeysuckle. Coral honeysuckle is the good honeysuckle.

I hope you find a spot for coral honeysuckle in your yard. If you do, it will beautify your yard, provide food for a wide variety of your wildlife neighbors and make you wish you had made its acquaintance years ago.

Terry W. Johnson is a retired Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division and executive director of The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.) Learn more about TERN, see previous “Out My Backdoor” columns, read Terry’s Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and check out his latest book, A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.”