June 2023: Trumpet honeysuckle
If you love to have Ruby-throated Hummingbirds feeding on your property, you could do worse than planting Trumpet Honeysuckle. Homegrown Habitat’s Sarah Midddleer explains why. Write to her at email@example.com.
Trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), also known as coral honeysuckle and woodbine, is a twining, perennial vine originally native to the southeastern United States. Having naturalized to many more northern and western regions, it is now also considered native in many northeastern and midwestern states, including Connecticut.
Trumpet honeysuckle is said to be one of the best woody vines (lianas); it leafs out early in spring, blooms from late spring to fall, grows rapidly, and offers excellent nesting habitat and food sources for birds. It is said to be the number-one plant for attracting hummingbirds.
Don’t confuse trumpet honeysuckle for the invasive, yellow-flowered Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), which has taken over much of our woodlands.
Although this plant can grow unsupported as a sprawling groundcover, if you want it to grow upward (where the birds can more easily access its resources), you will need a support such as a trellis or other similar structure. If you wish to train it up a privacy fence, you may need to give it some assistance early on, such as tying its main stems onto the boards.
Your efforts will be richly rewarded, because not only is trumpet honeysuckle a hummingbird magnet, its nectar also attracts orioles and pollinating insects. Among the lepidoptera who may visit are the hummingbird clearwing moth, the snowberry clearwing, the great leopardmoth, the crecopia silkmoth, and the white-lined sphynx. Its leaves host several caterpillar species, and its dense growth habit attracts catbirds, cardinals, mockingbirds, and Song Sparrows for nesting. Dozens of songbird species eat the trumpet honeysuckle fruit, which morphs attractively from yellow to orange to red. The fruit is an important resource for fall migrants.
I purchased a cultivar of trumpet honeysuckle long before I knew the importance of growing straight (that is, non cultivar) species: pollinators and birds have evolved along with native plants in mutually beneficial ways. The cultivars sometimes muck up these fine-tuned relationships with weird flower shapes or flower and leaf colors, etc., that the insects or birds can’t use. Sometimes the cultivars have lower volumes of nectar, or nectar and pollen with lower nutritional content.
Being on a tight budget, I managed to train my honeysuckle up a tree trunk with very high branches by placing some old wire fencing up around the tree. This worked quite well until the vine had grown to the top of the mesh (8 feet up, approximately), from where it proceeded to grow outward in an odd, viney, doughnut shape. I’m grateful that the vine has recently found a nearby tree’s branches into which it can once again make its way upward.
Of course a flat trellis, obelisk trellis, or arbor would have given the vine attractive support from the get-go and would have relieved me of that strange kind of gardening angst, when you want to try something unusual, find over time that it wasn’t that great an idea, and then keep hoping for the best. This is a story line that is repeated in my gardening life more than I’d like to admit. But, as they say, every failure is an opportunity to learn!
Trumpet honeysuckle takes well-drained, organically rich, neutral to acidic soil. Once established, it is very drought tolerant. It will bloom more profusely in full sun. The vine will typically grow eight to 15 feet high and three to six feet wide but can be pruned in summer after the first big bloom. It can also be planted in large containers (with a support), where the vine will naturally maintain a smaller size.
Trumpet honeysuckle is an excellent addition to hummingbird gardens (try combining it with wild columbine, beebalm, and cardinal flower) and pollinator gardens. It is also a terrific way for gardeners to utilize small spaces. With a vine-covered trellis you can create a privacy screen anywhere, such as near a patio, where it will delight human and animal guests all summer.
Mark Richardson and Dan Jaffe, Native Plants for New England Gardens, Globe Pequot, 2018
Laura Erickson, 100 Plants to Feed the Birds Turn Your Garden into a Healthy Bird Habitat, Storey Publishing, 2022