Hummingbirds and Non-native Honeysuckle
By Debbie Czarnopys-White, Master Gardener
The hummingbirds have started to arrive. There’ll be just a few scouts at first, and then the rest will continue to trickle in. About the time we really know they’re here for the season, many leave the comfort of the feeders of sugar water to partake of honeysuckle. Unfortunately, as pretty and sweet smelling as bush honeysuckle is, it has rightfully earned the title of one of the most invasive plants we must combat.
Bush honeysuckle is native to Asia and was introduced to the United States in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. At that time, it may have been a mark of prestige or wealth to have imported foreign plants. We could not foresee the error of that thinking. The leaves are out now and remain late into fall, giving them a competitive advantage over our own native plants. They form thick undergrowth that shades native plants. By shading these plants on the forest floor, they are not as able to reproduce and remain the native pollinators for our insects and other wildlife. They outcompete our own American plants. Those who’d like to take advantage of a walk in the woods of old would be hard pressed to find that woods of old today. Bush honeysuckle likes to grow everywhere but particularly on the edge of woods, and this impacts the natural growth of our native ground covers and seasonal wildflowers and plants. The forest or woods then begin to change content, and even the native trees aren’t allowed to have ample sunlight and water resources to regenerate and maintain an environment that’s healthy. In addition to competing for soil moisture, they also grab the good things of the earth that nourish other plants that we’ve been used to seeing and enjoying. Spreading from the roots, they are extremely difficult to get a handle on for removal, resulting in their ability to further take over an area.
Trying to control these invasives can be a very time-consuming task which is not necessarily productive. Spraying the whole plant may be a waste of resources and, in time, the plant may become resistant to the controlling spray. Cutting the plant down very low and applying the proper amount of herbicide by spraying or painting the remains immediately after cutting is beneficial. Waiting longer than 10-15 minutes allows the honeysuckle to seal over the cut and not be as open to receiving your product.
The counterpart to bush honeysuckle is Japanese honeysuckle, and it is the vine that slowly creeps over the forest floor, up trees and gradually can make its way into your garden. These vines can be hand-pulled, but this often has limited effectiveness as any part of the vine’s root remaining in the soil can continue to propagate the plant. Again, do research about using effective methods of removal or contact the University of Illinois Extension master gardeners for more assistance. These invasives can be controlled over time, so please work gently but consistently to bring back our native beauties.
The hummingbirds can be offered many other native plants that they would use. These include yellow honeysuckle (Lonicera flava) and red honeysuckle (Lonicera dioica var. glaucescens). Both of these plants attract wildlife to the landscape without threatening the surrounding vegetation. These are considered noninvasives and will be good alternative nectar sources for hummingbirds.