- Cullman, Alabama

December 8, 2013

SOUTHERN STYLE: Winter honeysuckle bush

By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times

— The scent of winter honeysuckle fills my garden in late winter. This brave shrub is the only thing in the garden with scented blooms this time of year, and is as worry-free as anything you can imagine.

Not to be confused with the honeysuckle vine, this native of China thrives well in the upper southern region of the U.S., along the coastal plains and even into Mexico.

I got mine as a root cutting from my Grandmother Cammack’s garden. I use it as a specimen shrub several places around my own garden, but have noticed its frequently being used as a long screening hedge to hide the back of townhouse garages and other places where privacy is an issue.

Its evergreen habit makes it useful for many spots in the landscape. It can grow very prolifically, somewhat akin to a forsythia bush, so you’ll want to give it a spot where it has lots of room to spread out. Other than that, it’s one of the most carefree plants that I can think of.

The heavenly lemon scent is a bonus!

It’s botanical name is “Lonicera fragrantissima” and it comes in verities like L. Albiflora, low growing deciduous shrub for dry, sandy soils and slopes, and “Chimonanthus praecox” or Winter Sweet, which grows 12 feet tall by 8 feet wide. This is the one I have. It grows very well in zones 6-9, is considered a fast-growing, semi-evergreen shrub with a mounding form.

Winter honeysuckle loves moist, fertile soil, but will tolerate various soil conditions. Give it full sun for optimal blooms; however, it tolerates shade as well.

Its foliage is a dull, blue-green that isn’t particularly notable, but the blooms are highly fragrant, with white flowers about an inch long, several pairs in each leaf axils. It blooms in late winter and early spring.

It does have some small, red insignificant berries, which helps to draw birds to your garden, but they are nothing noteworthy as far as use in arrangements or to give your garden any uumph.

Pruning is minimal. If it grows out of its bounds, when necessary, prune after flowering. Never shear, just remove dead canes.

And you only have to feed it once per year, in late winter or early spring.

You can use Winter Honeysuckle in the landscape as a screening hedge, specimen plant, for its fragrance or its attractive exfoliating bark, somewhat reminiscent of a river birch.

While Winter Honeysuckle is not the most attractive shrub in the garden, no where can you find such a heavenly scent. In any season, scent is a welcome attribute, but the fact that it blooms in the winter, when the wind carries its perfume across the garden filling it with the promise of spring, makes it so much more precious.

And don’t get it confused with the honeysuckle vine. Winter honeysuckle blooms are not the loose, spidery blooms of its veining cousin, but more compact, almost like a begonia bloom. Left to its own devices, you probably won’t notice it at all until it releases its fragrance all over your garden one day.

This is a perfect “pass along” plant, so if you have one, dig around the base and get a stem with some roots to share with a new neighbor, an old friend, or a newlywed. They will remember you each winter day when the breezes begin to blow from the south again and the aroma of sweet honeysuckle wafts throughout your entire neighborhood.