Honeysuckle: The Green Strangler

2019 by Alex Silbajoris, Friends of the Scioto River

Native to Asia, Amur Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) now smothers native plants throughout the Eastern United States. It spreads aggressively in any unattended areas from parks, to yards and gardens, to alleys and abandoned lots in the cities.

What problems arise from this? In urban settings, honeysuckle presents a nuisance by growing in dense thickets anywhere it is not controlled. Honeysuckle is an "understory" plant, meaning it prefers semi-shaded areas like forest edges. It will grow in full shade but not quickly; it will also thrive in full sun.

It's easy to spot when you know how to identify it as the first thing to sprout leaves in the Spring, and almost the last thing to drop its leaves in the Fall. By knowing just that much, you can easily recognize it and realize how much of it is in so many places.

Honeysuckle in April

Honeysuckle in October

In springtime, the lush banks of honeysuckle bloom with masses of white flowers. They are attractive and fragrant, and because of this, landscapers and gardeners chose honeysuckle as a hardy and fast-growing plant. This gave honeysuckle a foothold in widespreas areas.

Beginning in Fall and continuing into Winter, honeysuckle bears deep red berries which fruit-eating birds favor. This brings two problems:

First, because the berries offer a tempting food source, some migratory birds like robins remain in their northern warm-season habitat instead of flying south to seek food. Seeing a first robin in springtime is no longer such a novelty because the robins no longer leave. The berries offer moisture and some nutrition, but they are low in lipids (oils) so they don't offer much sustinance. The supply of berries often runs out in Winter and the birds who did not migrate go hungry and sometimes starve.

Second, the berries pack many seeds, which pass through the birds' digestive tracts to survive in their droppings. In this manner, the seeds fly to new locations where no honeysuckle had been growing before. So it appears unexpectedly in gardens and alleys, parks and roadsides, to establish new colonies.

When honeysuckle's spreading habit meets pavement, it will arch far over the pavement. This is Scioto Blvd. in Columbus, which is as wide as a typical suburban street, with curbs and storm sewers. (The date 1959 is cast into the sewer manhole covers.)

Seen here in April 2009, the boulevard was reduced to a path as wide as a pair of outstretched arms. In part, this sprawl is aided because after enough years of leaf litter accumulation on the asphalt, the honeysuckle could take root over the pavement. Given a few more years, this gap would have closed and there would be no visible sign of the road's presence.

This provided cover for a homeless encampment. It has since been cleared (by a big front-end loader), but public access is now prohibited in this former parkland.

FOSR vs. Honeysuckle In the Parks

Because of honeysuckle's opportunistic and aggressive growth habit, it presents major problems in the city's parks. It will eagerly take over areas and crowd out native vegetation from small wildflowers, by shading them out, to full-sized trees by shading out their seedlings. This interrupts natural succession; in areas where honeysuckle has been established for a long time, you'll find mature trees but very few younger trees to succeed them. In this manner, honeysuckle can completely replace native understory trees like buckeye and redbud.

Honeysuckle provides cover for illegal activity. Often news reports speak of an assault on someone using a bike path, by someone emerging "from the bushes" because the dense honeysuckle can conceal someone right next to the path. I like to joke that FOSR has ruined a lot of good party spots, but it isn't funny when we've found empty alcohol containers just a few feet away from a playground.

At FOSR's first honeysuckle removal event, at Indian Village Camp, Duranceaux Park, in 2005, we recruited trucks to haul away our cuttings. We quickly realized that this was difficult and impractical.

It was time-consuming to chop our cuttings into smaller and smaller pieces, and then stomp them into the trucks. Unloading them was not much easier. Other groups undertaking similar efforts run into similar challenges.

However, it was very encouraging to see that we could take action and change the condition of a park which had been lacking attention.

Beginning in 2006, we started working with the City of Columbus Department of Public Utilities, Division of Water, Watershed Maintenance Department. They have responsibility for grounds maintenance around the City's three drinking-water reservoirs O'Shaughnessy and Griggs, which are on the Scioto River, and Hoover, which is on Big Walnut Creek. But they can't help us at Greenlawn Dam, even though it's on the Scioto.

At first we had only one City employee, who cut stems for us to haul to staging areas. She applies herbicide to the cut stumps to prevent re-growth; otherwise the honeysuckle will grow back. The only alternative to herbicide is to dig the stumps out by the roots with picks and shovels very effective, but also very labor-intensive.

The rest of the crew would come later, as their busy schedule permitted.

We piled the cuttings into big heaps, which was not good because then it became a lot of work for the City crew to untangle them. It looked like tornado damage.

Later they instructed us to leave the cuttings in rows, not stacked up, with the stems pointing to where the chipper truck would be.

Those are our volunteers from BMW Financial Services, who have worked with us for many years. Thanks again!

Having the chipper truck changes everything. Actually there is one chipper and two trucks, so when one truck is full, they can break the rig and set up the second truck while the first goes to unload. A truckload is approximately four tons, and we typically fill three or four loads at one event.

This is another advantage FOSR has working at Griggs: The City can dump the chips in a depot area right there in the same park. When other groups work at other parks, the crew is from Columbus Recreation and Parks, and they have to go to a remote location to unload. That leaves the volunteers standing around and waiting for a long time, and some volunteers leave for lack of interest.

We have to follow strict safety rules around the chipper. Only City employees wearing full safety gear can feed it, and it can chew up some surprisingly large logs. It is very loud. Our volunteeers hand the stems over to the crew.

They keep us in line literally to avoid congestion and confusion around the machine. As they tell us, "Form a line like jets at an airport." In this shot, the City workers are wearing safety yellow.

I tell the volunteers, "If you can smell sawdust, you are inhaling it."

On several occasions, they have closed the park road and we have completely blocked it.

With the honeysuckle gone, usually there is nothing left but bare ground. This shows how nothing can compete with it.

At one location, removing the honeysuckle revealed an old concrete barbecue grill which apparently hadn't been fired in decades. I came back later with a friend, and we cooked on it.

The native plants have surprising resiliency; some old seeds are still latent and viable, and other seeds arrive new through natural distribution like falling from trees, or blowing in on the wind.