The genus to which our native honeysuckle belongs is Lonicera, which contains about 180 species, over half of which are found in China and the rest distributed around Europe, north America and northern India. Most Lonicera are twining or climbing plants but the genus does contain a large number of shrubs. Although the flowers of the shrubby honeysuckles are often highly scented, they are paltry compared to the flamboyant flowers of the climbing species.
The flowerheads of the Lonicera climbers are formed of clusters of tubular, trumpet-shaped flowers that are filled with a sweet nectar. So packed with nectar are the flowers that you occasionally see a small hole at the base of the flower where a bee has bitten through to reach the sweet reward. Most Lonicera species are pollinated by moths, which explains why the perfume is strongest in the evening. In north America some honeysuckle species are pollinated by humming birds, which must be an extraordinary sight.
The British native climbing honeysuckle is Lonicera periclymenum and is found in hedgerows and woodland edges throughout Europe, from Sweden in the north down to the Mediterranean and across to Turkey. After flowering, the plant produces slightly sticky, bright-red berries. The scent from the flowers of Lonicera periclymenum is the strongest of all the species and this is probably the reason so many cultivars have been selected.
In the garden, honeysuckles are often suggested as companions to roses but, unless you are growing them with a rambling rose that never gets pruned, I would avoid growing them with shrub roses and climbing roses because pruning the rose becomes impractical. Although some of the shorter species can be grown up obelisks or strong supports, most honeysuckles look best when allowed to clamber along walls or fences. Ensure that there is enough of a gap between the wall and the support for the honeysuckle to twine around. Wherever you plant them, make sure it is in a place where you can luxuriate in their perfume and maybe even reach out and pick the flowers to suck the nectar.
The best climbing honeysuckles or Lonicera
Lonicera x heckrottii ‘American Beauty’
Honeysuckle (Lonicera x heckrottii) © Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images
Hybrid honeysuckles often have little scent but this cultivar, sometimes sold as ‘Gold Flame’, has it in abundance. The flowers are bright orange on the inside and deep pink outside. Red berries follow in autumn. This Lonicera flowers June to August. 6m. RHS H6, USDA 5a-9b.
A vigorous Lonicera species from western China with evergreen foliage that has downy new shoots, which are often flushed with bronze. The flowers, smaller than our native honeysuckle, are yellow with pink and red staining on the outer petals. 6m. RHS H6, USDA 5a-9b.
Lonicera x italica
Lonicera caprifolium italica © Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images
A floriferous and long-flowering Lonicera hybrid that has extremely fragrant, dusky-pink flowers that fade to yellow from May to August. To perform at its best, it needs to be grown in dappled shade in a well-drained, humus-rich soil. 5m. RHS H5, USDA 4a-9b.
Another species from western China with elongated, dark-green leaves and tight clusters of scented, pale, purplish-pink flowers. The berries on this Lonicera, which appear in autumn, have a dark-blue sheen. In cold areas it tends to be deciduous. 4m. RHS H4, USDA 6a-8b.
Lonicera periclymenum ‘Serotina’
Honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum © Photo by FlowerPhotos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Known as the late Dutch honeysuckle, because it continues flowering longer than other cultivars, usually into October. The highly perfumed flowers are a deep reddish-purple on the outside and yellow within. 8m. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 5a-9b.
Lonicera japonica ‘Hall’s Prolific’
True to its name, this is a vigorous and free-flowering Lonicera cultivar with sweetly scented, pure-white flowers that fade to a creamy yellow. The flowers appear in April and May, and are followed in the autumn by shiny, purple-black berries. 4m. RHS H5, USDA 4a-9b.
Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’
© Maayke de Ridder
Winter can be hard for those of us who love to bring flowers into the house. Thank goodness then for Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’, which is so highly fragrant a single branch can transform your house. In temperate climates the shrubby honeysuckle is semi-evergreen with beautiful, dark-green leaves, and produces dark-red berries in the summer. The rough-textured grey bark on old stems makes it even more appealing. AGM. Grows to 2m and is a cross between Lonicera fragrantissima and Lonicera standishii (1920). The honeysuckle needs moist but well-drained soil; full sun or part shade. RHS H6, USDA 5a-9b. Happy in winter to early spring. Chosen by Hans Kramer
Lonicera x tellmanniana
Although the flowers are unscented this is a superb hybrid, raised in Hungary in the 1920s. It is covered in 5cm-wide flowers from May to July. The buds have a red flush and open to reveal bright apricot blooms. 4m. AGM. RHS H5, USDA 4a-9b.
Lonicera etrusca ‘Superba’
A Mediterranean species that has been grown in gardens since the 18th century and which tolerates hot and dry situations better than other species. This Lonicera cultivar has large, scented cream flowers that age to apricot. 4m. AGM. RHS H5, USDA 4a-9b.
Lonicera japonica ‘Mint Crisp’
Honeysuckle: Lonicera japonica © Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images
A vigorous cultivar that is evergreen in mild winters. Its distinctive marbled foliage features dark markings on a paler green, and the leaves take on a pink sheen in autumn. The honeysuckle flowers are scented, opening white and fading to cream. 6m. RHS H5, USDA 4a-9b.
Lonicera x brownii ‘Dropmore Scarlet’
Honeysuckle Lonicera x brownii Dropemore Scarlet © Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images
A distinctive Lonicera cultivar with flowers composed of clusters of 4cm-long narrow trumpets. The flowers are lightly scented with a scarlet exterior and glowing orange interior. The glaucous foliage enhances the plant’s beauty. 4m. RHS H5, USDA 4a-9b.
Lonicera standishii var. lancifolia ‘Budapest’
© Maayke de Ridder
The hybrid Lonicera x purpusii may be better known but this has a neater habit. You can see the first flowers from November onwards, although they stop flowering for a while when it is freezing. During milder spells, you can enjoy the flowers, which sit in pairs or sometimes threes. The long, pale-yellow stamens are eye-catching and complement the ivory-based, mauve-pink flowers. They have an exquisite lemony scent, so plant this along a frequently used path or near a doorway. Chosen by Hans Kramer
Honeysuckle: Lonicera sempervirens © Dagmar Scherf/ullstein bild via Getty Images
A striking and tough Lonicera species from the eastern USA and one of the parents of ‘Dropmore Scarlet’. The tubular flowers are sweetly scented, coral-red on the outside and orange inside. Flowers May to July, followed by fleshy red berries. 5m. AGM. RHS H5, USDA 4a-9b.
How to grow honeysuckle (Lonicera)
Honeysuckles are easy to grow and will thrive in most soils. You don’t need the sunken lanes or high hedgerows that are home to wild specimens to succeed, but if you can mimic those conditions then your Lonicera plant will be very happy. The roots and base of the climbers prefer cool conditions, sheltered from the heat of the sun with a nearby wall, fence, obelisk or other structure that the plant can clamber up into the sunshine.
Honeysuckles are attractive to aphids and plants grown in direct sunlight seem to be particularly susceptible, so try and grow your honeysuckle in a slightly shaded place. A west-facing wall or fence is ideal.
When to prune Lonicera and how
The fate of too many honeysuckles is to become a dense mass of tangled, woody stems. This happens when plants have been left unattended and unpruned. The best way to deal with this is to cut the whole plant down to about 70cm from the ground and remove any dead stems back to soil level. Tie the new stems into wires, or whatever else is supporting the climber.
You will probably lose the following summer’s flowers but it will be worth it to have a neat, healthy plant. Many forms of honeysuckle, including Lonicera periclymenum and its cultivars, flower on stems that have grown the previous year. In general, they flower early in the season. These should be pruned in mid to late summer, after the plant has finished flowering.
As always when pruning use clean secateurs with a sharp blade.
How to prune honeysuckle
- First, cut away any diseased, damaged or dead stems.
- Then cut back stems that have flowered by about one third. Stems at the top of the plant often become intertwined and tangled and these can be cut back to keep the honeysuckle in the space (more or less) where you want it to grow.
Honeysuckles are not climbers that can be neatly trained so some unruly growth is inevitable (and is part of the plant’s charm). Other forms that require the same treatment are Lonicera x tellmanniana and Lonicera etrusca ‘Superba’. Later-flowering species, such as Lonicera japonica, Lonicera sempervirens, Lonicera x brownii and Lonicera henryi, do not need regular pruning.
In the spring, remove congested or dead shoots and remove any long shoots that are creeping beyond the space you have available for the plant to clamber into. Sometimes plants become bare at the bottom, with all the growth and flowers at the top. If this happens cut out a couple of the stems to about 60cm from the ground.
This will encourage new growth lower down, while the remaining stems support growth higher up.
Where to buy honeysuckle or Lonicera
• Ashridge Trees*, ashridgetrees.co.uk
• Burncoose Nurseries, Gwennap, Redruth, Cornwall TR16 6BJ. Tel 01209 860316, burncoose.co.uk
• Floyds Climbers & Clematis*, Tel 01249 823200, floydsclimbers.co.uk
• Groves Nurseries and Garden Centre, West Bay Road, Bridport, Dorset DT6 4BA. Tel 01308 422654, grovesnurseries.co.uk
• Kelways Plants, Picts Hill, Langport, Somerset TA10 9EZ. Tel 01458 253352, kelways.co.uk
• Larch Cottage Nurseries, Melkinthorpe, Penrith, Cumbria CA10 2DR. Tel 01931 712404, larchcottage.co.uk
• Peter Beales Roses, London Road, Attleborough, Norfolk NR17 1AY. Tel 01953 454707, classicroses.co.uk
*Mail order only
Author John Hoyland is a plantsman and garden writer.