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Alternatives to Bush Honeysuckle
by Leonard Perry
by Leonard Perry


In extension I serve as an advisor and consultant to the greenhouse and nursery industry, primarily in Vermont but throughout the region and beyond as well.

I give presentations on my research to the industry, and to home groups. In Research, my focus is "herbaceous perennial production systems".

His website is at  Leonards zone of gardening: home with my trials, generally USDA 4a. Campus in Burlington is 5.

November 11, 2007

You should avoid planting honeysuckle shrubs in landscapes as birds spread their seeds to natural areas where they become invasive. For this reason, some states now prohibit their sale. There are many good alternatives to plant instead of honeysuckles, or to replace existing ones in landscapes. These include spicebush, inkberry, shrub dogwoods, red chokecherry, winterberry, serviceberry, and viburnums.

Bush honeysuckles are upright, deciduous (lose their leaves in winter) shrubs that range from 6 to 15 feet tall. Pairs of flowers are borne along stems in leaf axils in late spring to early summer, where the red to orange fruits are produced. Seeds of these shrubs are spread by birds into natural areas which they become invasive, crowding out native plants. There they form a dense shrub thicket that competes with native plants for light, water, and nutrients crowding many out. The fruits of these honeysuckles don’t supply the high fat, nutrient rich food for migrating birds that are supplied by many native plant species.

There are many species of exotic or introduced, non-native bush honeysuckles with common examples being showy (Lonicera bella), Japanese (L. japonica), Morrow’s (L. morrowii), Tatarian (L. tatarica), and the hybrid Bell’s (L. morrowii x tatarica). These cross readily, producing a host of seedlings with unknown parents. They can be confused with the native, non-invasive bush honeysuckles. A main difference is that older stems of the exotic species are usually hollow, while the older stems of native species are usually solid.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) forms a neat, spreading mound 6 to 10 feet high and slightly wider. The stems smell spicy when crushed. This native plant adapts to wet or dry soils, and to sun or shade. Female plants have scarlet berry-like fruit. Unfortunately, it may only be hardy to warmer areas (USDA zone 5).

Inkberry (Ilex glabra) too usually is not hardy in the coldest areas (USDA zone 5 and above). This native to swamps of eastern North America prefers moist, acidic soils, either in sun or shade. It has a rounded habit about 5 to 7 feet high and side. It has black fruit on female plants in winter. The small, evergreen leaves can be injured if exposed to winter sun and winds.

Two native dogwood shrubs are hardy to the coldest areas (USDA zone 3) in either sun or partial shade. The silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) gets 6 to 8 feet high and wide, while the gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) gets 8 to 10 feet high and at least this wide. Both have upright, oval habits. Yellow-white flowers on the silky dogwood produce bluish fruits attractive to birds. Fragrant flowers on the gray dogwood in June produce white fruit on the red stems in fall. Unless pruned, the gray dogwood can produce wide colonies of stems.

Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is a slow grower, eventually reaching 6 to 10 feet high, and half that wide. This native plant has an open and upright habit in landscapes, but with suckers will from a broad mound. Once established, this plant will tolerate drought.

The species of red chokeberry has red to reddish purple leaves in fall, but the cultivar ‘Brilliantissima’ has scarlet fall color. Clusters of white flowers in spring produce red fruit in the fall. This plant will tolerate occasionally wet soils, and is hardy in most of the north (USDA zone 4 and warmer). A couple choice and related cultivars to consider are the lower ‘Autumn Magic’ with black fruit, and ‘Viking’ with purple fruits high in vitamins.

There are many cultivars of our native winterberry (Ilex verticillata) to choose from. The dense, twiggy growth of this deciduous holly provides cover for birds by summer, and fruit for them in winter. There is a difference in fruit color retention, usually bright red, among cultivars. Best in trials at the University of Vermont were ‘Jolly Red’, ‘Maryland Beauty’, ‘Winter Red’, and the hybrid ‘Sparkleberry’. Keep in mind if planting these that you’ll need a male plant or two for pollination. The species of winterberry is often seen in natural areas in wet soils, although this plant tolerates dry soils as well, only grows less quickly there. Most are hardy to colder areas (USDA zone 4), the hybrids being a zone less hardy.

There are several native species of serviceberry that form large shrubs, or multi-stem small trees. The Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) is perhaps the most commonly found in our area. Reaching 15 to 25 feet high, and half that wide, it has an upright and open habit. It grows well in sun or shade, and is quite hardy (USDA zone 3). The attractive white spring flowers are followed in summer by edible black fruits, then in fall by attractive red to orange leaves.

There are several native viburnums you could use as alternatives to bush honeysuckles, but keep in mind species have varying susceptibility to a new pest, the Viburnum leaf beetle. Witherod (V. cassinoides) is less susceptible, reaching 8 to 10 feet high and wide. White flowers lead to fruit that start green, then change to red before black. The orange-red fall leaves are attractive. Witherod is quite hardy in wide-ranging light and soil conditions.

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