A Lesson in Honeysuckle

By Scott Geier

When my daughter was born, money was tight, so my wife and I moved to South Carolina to live in a house that my parents had bought to retire in; they let us live there for cheap until we got on our feet. The house was in a master-planned community on Daniel Island. It was pretty much what you’d expect in a master-planned neighborhood: it was safe, and clean, and clipped, and expensive and white. I hated it.

By the time my daughter was old enough to walk, we walked together, alone, whenever we could. One day we walked down a path and I smelled something. It was somewhere off the path, in the woods, about fifty feet from the exercise module and retention pond. I stopped and saw a large mass of vines, dotted with yellow and white flowers.

“Georgie, look over there,” I said.

We walked over to the thicket.

Honeysuckle growing at the edge of the woods.
Honeysuckle growing at the edge of the woods. Source: www.newagegathering.com

I plucked one of the flowers off, by the base, pinched it gently at the bottom, pulled the thin green stem through the tube until a small drop of nectar beaded up in the gap. I tasted it.

My daughter was aghast. “You ate that??!!”

“It’s honeysuckle,” I said. “Here, you try it.”

Georgie laughed but didn’t hesitate. She plucked a flower, pulled the stem through, just right, on her first try, and tasted the nectar. We both smiled.

Looking back, I don’t think I would have been as happy if I had known that I had just taught my daughter how to eat an invasive weed.

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Honeysuckle, at least the version that I knew growing up in the South, and the version my daughter and I found that day on Daniel Island, is a particular variety called Japanese honeysuckle, lonicera japonica. It’s one of at least 20 species in North America, but it’s not

Photo courtesy wikipedia creative commons
Japanese honeysuckle flowers. Source: wikipedia creative commons
native to our area. It’s originally from East Asia. It was brought to America in 1802 and planted in a garden in Long Island.  Once it got here, Japanese honeysuckle made itself right at home, and then some. It grew like, well, a weed. By the 20th century, it stretched from Florida to Maine and as far west as Kansas.

And honeysuckle didn’t spread so far by asking permission. It’s a bully. It grows up to 80 feet, climbing trees and whatever else it can find, and it sprawls outward to get its fill of sun and water. It arrives early and stays late (or doesn’t leave at all; in parts of the South, it’s an evergreen). It smothers the surrounding plants, and they often die.

But despite this, honeysuckle is celebrated almost like no other plant, especially in the South. Do a quick Google search and you’ll find countless restaurants, cafes and bars with the word “honeysuckle” in their names; most of them are located in the South or they feature Southern cuisine. According to the lyrics.net database, there are at least 156 songs with the word “honeysuckle” in them, and most of them are by country, folk, and blues artists. Honeysuckle is the name of a trailer park in Kentucky, it’s in the title of radio program about moonshiners in the 1930s, and it’s a word on the cover of a novel about a South Carolina woman named Raylene. Why?

There are obvious reasons, but they don’t suffice.

To get honeysuckle nectar, pinch the green bulb at the base of the flower blossom and slowly pull out the stamen.
To get honeysuckle nectar, pinch the green bulb at the base of the flower blossom and slowly pull out the stamen. Source: www.instructables.com

Honeysuckle is very pretty, of course. The flowers are colored like a wedding dress and shaped like a pair of lips about to kiss. But a lot of flowers are pretty. Honeysuckle smells wonderful –it’s strong enough to get your attention and yet soft enough to seem demure. But a lot of flowers smell nice. Honeysuckle nectar is sweet and you can eat it. But so is maple tree sap, and you don’t hear many songs about syrup.

Maybe it’s just the word itself: honeysuckle. Honey. Suckle. Is there a sweeter, more “maternal” word in the English language? It sounds more like a process than a plant; it’s the sound of a mother nursing her child to sleep. But that can’t entirely explain the appeal.

I think honeysuckle is celebrated because, unlike most plants, it is personal. Honeysuckle is not just a sprawling vine with flowers. For many people, especially Southerners, it is a sprawling collection of memories, a cluster of moments. Accidental moments like the one I shared with my daughter.

It’s hard to find a first-person article about honeysuckle that doesn’t mention childhood. Even recipes for honeysuckle-based foods (sorbets, jams, liquor) tend to begin with phrases like “when I was growing up…”

A child tastes the nectar oozing from a honeysuckle flower.
A child tastes the nectar oozing from a honeysuckle flower. Source: www.themagiconions.com

Honeysuckle evokes memories of childhood because it is the quintessential childhood object: it wanders, it causes trouble, it goes places it’s not supposed to go, it is frivolous, it is fleeting, it offers a series of small adventures. Eating honeysuckle nectar is the horticultural equivalent of catching lightning bugs.

And I think honeysuckle evokes childhood because of where it usually grows. It grows in childhood spaces. Not in the “designated” childhood spots – the school yards and fenced-off playgrounds – but in the forgotten, neglected areas that kids love to explore: the woods, the train trestle, the nook underneath the broken fence behind the neighbor’s house. We grow up and those places fade back into the background. The broken fence may still be there, but the pirate’s hideout is gone, because you no longer have the eyes to see it.

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About a year after I first ate honeysuckle with my daughter, we moved to Carrboro, North Carolina. It was mid-summer. As soon as we unpacked the boxes, Georgie and I went out for a walk, but this time, not alone. She now had two brothers.

We ended up at a nice park. It had a playground and tennis courts and picnic tables. The boys squealed and ran over to the jungle gym. Georgie played on the swings for a bit, but soon got restless and wandered to the edges of the park. I followed her. We explored a creek and looked for roly-polies under rocks. Then I smelled something sweet in the air.

“Georgie, look.”

It was growing off to the side of the groomed part of the park, behind a garbage can and drainage ditch. Georgie wasted no time.

She was tall enough now to reach most of the flowers. She started eating drops of nectar in rapid succession.

A few minutes later, a pair of young children joined us by the side of the woods.

“What are you eating?” one of them asked.

I didn’t have to say anything, because Georgie answered. With great aplomb, she plucked a flower from the vine and began the lesson.

The author walking with his daughter in North Carolina.
The author walking with his daughter in North Carolina.

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Honeysuckle Jelly (yields 7 half-pints)

• 4 cups honeysuckle flowers
• 4 cups boiling water
• 1/4 c. lemon juice
• 4 cups sugar
• 1 package liquid pectin

Gather the honeysuckle blossoms by picking them from their bases, where the tube-shaped ends of the flowers meet the vine. Make sure to keep the tiny green bulbs at the ends of the blossoms intact; the sweet nectar oozes from the stamen after you pick off the tips.

Next, prepare an infusion. Remove the tiny green tips at the bases of the honeysuckle blossoms. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a large saucepan, turn the heat off, and then add the honeysuckle blossoms, covering the pan after blooms are placed in water. Allow them to steep for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Strain the flowers from the liquid. Measure two cups of the infusion and return it to the saucepan.
Add lemon juice and sugar, and turn heat to medium high, stirring constantly. Bring the infusion to a hard boil that won’t stir down. (220 degrees)

Add the pectin and boil for two minutes. Reduce heat if necessary to avoid boiling over – the mixture will rise quite a bit when it’s boiling so it’s best to use an over-sized pan.

Ladle the jelly into hot, sterilized jars, and screw on canning lids. Place the jars in boiling water of a water-bath canner for 5 minutes. Remove jars and place on a towel, out of drafts. Allow jars to cool for 24 hours. After 24 hours, test the lids to make sure the jars are properly sealed.

Adapted from a recipe at www.taylormaderanch.com/blog. Used for educational purposes.