Bush honeysuckle

Invasive Bush Honeysuckle: Bad for Birds, Wildflowers and Water

(This piece was originally published in the October issue of Urban Times)

Bush honeysuckle is ubiquitous in our urban neighborhoods, especially along creeks and the White River. To the untrained eye, it can look like a fine use of untended corridors—something green is growing, and it smells nice and produces pretty red berries.

But, in actual fact, bush honeysuckle is harmful in several ways.

It’s one of several plants that are considered “invasive,” meaning they crowd out native plants that provide food and habitat for the insects and animals that coevolved with them.
Nature is not always best left alone. Sometimes, because of past human interference, it takes human intervention today to rebalance things.

Such is the case with this invasive plant. It was brought into the United States as an ornamental around 1900. Later, government officials promoted as a good erosion control plant, as well as a shrub that could provide food and habitat for wildlife.

Unfortunately, these claims proved false. The opposite turned out to be true.

Left alone, honeysuckle reproduces and spreads rapidly, and it beats out native plants in several ways. It shows up earlier in the spring, and its roots emit a chemical that impedes growth of other plants. For those of us who love to see wildflowers, leaving honeysuckle unchecked is a very bad idea.

It’s also bad for birds. Native birds do eat the berries. Sadly, this fruit does not provide the nutrients they would get from native plants. It’s the equivalent of candy: a quick burst of sugar that only takes the birds so far. For migratory birds, this can spell disaster, as they need sustained nutrition to take them on their long journeys.

Besides that, bush honeysuckle plants don’t host the insects that are a crucial part of the diet of many birds. And the more this shrub crowds out native plants, the stingier the diet will be for birds. Most nesting birds count on insects to feed their young.

Ironically, birds become unwitting agents of this shrub’s domination. After eating the berries in late summer and early fall, they spread the seed in their droppings, sometimes very far afield.

Erosion is another issue accompanying the spread of honeysuckle, particularly along waterways like Pogue’s Run, Pleasant Run, Fall Creek and the White River. With nothing holding the soil in place under the honeysuckle, sediment readily washes down into the waterway, and streambanks erode away. Sediment pollution is a major issue with Indiana’s waterways.

Five species of honeysuckle are now illegal to sell, gift or exchange under Indiana’s terrestrial plant rule. That’s a great development. But since the plant shows up just about everywhere, it’s going to take a lot of effort to beat it back. Fall is an excellent time to work on honeysuckle removal, whether from a yard, a public right-of-way or nature preserve.

At the Central Indiana Land Trust, our stewardship team works throughout the year to remove honeysuckle from our preserves, so we can keep the land healthful for birds and other wildlife. Depending on the size, we typically cut these shrubs with a hand saw or a chainsaw, then treat the stump with herbicide to make sure it does not resprout.

If Asian bush honeysuckle has made itself welcome on your property, be aware that the impact of that plant goes far beyond your own yard. Removing it will benefit birds, wildflowers and waterways near and far. Find out how to remove it (and what to plant in its place) at the website of our partner organization, Reconnecting to our Waterways.

Jamison Hutchins

Stewardship Director

Jamison leads our stewardship team in caring for the land that is so important to you. He brings not only a love of nature, but an ability to create meaningful partnerships that advance crucial work.