Fly Honeysuckle: My Earliest-Blooming Native Shrub

It still surprises me every time I see this shrub blooming. The bloodroots are waning and the trout lilies are gearing up. At best, the forest trees have tiny pinpricks of yellow, green, or red along their branches, a hint of the leaves to come. It’s early spring. But as I walk down the path to the creek, fly honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis) is leafed out and shyly blooming.

It looks like it’s struggling to survive.

Unlike its invasive non-native cousins, fly honeysuckle never seems very vigorous. In the few reference books where I find it listed, this shrub is always described as scraggly or scrawny. I used to think the ones I found in my woods were struggling to survive, but maybe that’s just the way they are.

All shrub honeysuckles–including the invasive ones–have opposite leaves and paired berries, but there is an easy way to figure out if it’s fly honeysuckle.

fly honeysuckle ciliate foliage

The leaves have little hairs along the edges. If you can’t see them, click on the photo to enlarge it.

Another clue is that the alien honeysuckles are just starting to leaf out and are nowhere near flowering yet.

Fly honeysuckle likes cool forests, especially near stream banks and ledges. And no, I don’t know why it’s called fly honeysuckle. According to the WildSeed Project, clearwing moths and mellitophilous bees visit the flowers. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center credits hummingbirds, butterflies, and bumblebees with visiting the flowers. No one mentions flies.

A lot of different birds love the berries, according to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden: Ruffed Grouse, American Robin, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush, Gray Catbird, Cedar Waxwing, Cardinal, Purple Finch, Goldfinch, White-throated Sparrow, Mockingbird and others.

fly honeysuckle flowers

The flowers are delicately tinged with lilac and open a few at a time.

There’s not a lot of them on any one shrub, and their subtle beauty is easily overlooked.

There’s nothing about this shrub that knocks your socks off, and yet, every time I come across it I feel like I’ve discovered a treasure. It’s a humble plant, dismissed by reference works and field guides, but perhaps its modest nature is what appeals to me.

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