“Honeysuckle: The South’s Favorite Weed” an essay by Gretchen Gales

As a child, my grandfather showed me how to pick and drink the nectar from the honeysuckle that grew on the outskirts of the woods. After plucking it from the bushes, he showed me how to pinch the green ends and draw the nectar out. I always loved finding the blossoms with the most nectar and pouted in disappointment when I would find duds, tossing them to the ground. As an adult, I still reflect on honeysuckle’s influence on southern memory and culture, especially in regards to my own memories. Every year when the honeysuckle blooms blossom, I still pick them to remember my grandfather, who has since passed.

At a point in my adult life, I started getting curious about the origins of the plant. In any small Southern town, it grows as rampantly as any weed. With over 100 different species of honeysuckle existing globally, I feared it would be difficult to narrow down which one of them was the distinctive plant that connects me to my past. But it wasn’t hard to find. As a matter of fact, the honeysuckle I came to know as a staple southern tradition is actually classified as an invasive species. Lonicera japonica, better known as the Japanese or Chinese Honeysuckle, is one of the most common species of honeysuckle known throughout the United States. It has overrun most of the Southeast and has sprinkled itself throughout California, Nevada, and New Mexico.

The Japanese honeysuckle is most easily recognized by its oblong, white or yellow blossoms. They are also recognized by their small, dark berries. Their appearance is limited to April through July, but quickly spread by crawling and twirling around adult trees, saplings, canopies, and other forested areas. The Japanese honeysuckle also easily spreads airborne from birds dropping the seeds after harvesting the berries for food. Native honeysuckle species do not last as long as the Japanese honeysuckle, as the leaves from the latter last much longer than the native plant.

Regardless of its classification as a “noxious weed” throughout much of the northeast and parts of the southeast, honeysuckle is still hailed by many as a classic and nostalgic scent. It is purposefully placed as a barrier for erosion control and for its aesthetic appeal. It is the focus of several perfumes and has made appearances as an ingredient in wine. In some wineries throughout Virginia, wine featuring notes of honeysuckle make for a popular souvenir to bring home or to experience during a tasting. At the Native-American Mattaponi Winery in Virginia’s Spotsylvania County, their “Golden Horseshoe” wine has a strong presence of honeysuckle. In other parts of the South and all across America, honeysuckle wine is sold as a sweet, familiar commodity. If you’re lucky enough to have heaps of it growing in your backyard, you can make your own honeysuckle wine!

In modern country music, honeysuckle is frequently mentioned as a sweet metaphor to describe a loved one or is in the backdrop of a Southern scene. One notable example is “Honeybee” by The Voice coach Blake Shelton, who playfully compares himself to a honeybee after comparing the romantic interest of the song to a honeysuckle blossom. In Rascal Flatt’s song “Honeysuckle Lazy”, sweet tea and front porches provide a comfortable and homey setting that could universally describe many lives, its central nostalgic value from the mention of honeysuckle alone.

Through consumables, music, and memory, the great legacy of what was once a simple weed stretches far beyond a gardening nuisance; the scent of honeysuckle alone is a powerfully nostalgic reminder of a peaceful afternoon or a cherished childhood. Because of this, honeysuckle will continue to reign as a powerful plant in the South and beyond.

*Gretchen Gales is the Executive Editor of Quail Bell Magazine. Her work has been featured in Ms., Bustle, and The Establishment as well as many creative projects such as anthologies and many literary magazines. See more of her work at writinggales.wordpress.com and follow her on Instagram @writinggales*