Many a Southern summer could be captured in a scent.
The heady, sticky-sweet pull of milky white magnolia blossoms. A night threaded with the thick smoke of fresh barbecue. The humid decay of creek beds rich with years of fallen leaves and banks of tartly fresh grass.
But the true scent of summer drifts along the first warm whispers of wind, carried from delicate butter-yellow blossoms softly scattered across stretched and climbing vines. For us Southerners, that scent means one thing only. More than Memorial Day or the rise in temperature, more than the dismissal of school days or the appearance of swimsuits on racks, the first late-spring wafts of honeysuckle are indicative of the arrival of our season, summer.
The name “honeysuckle” is, of course, derived from the flower’s honey-sweet stamen. Every Southern child knows that the blossom harbors a drop of delicious nectar for those willing to work for it. Honeysuckle connoisseurs choose the richly-colored, goldenrod blooms; after carefully plucking the bud, they pinch the base of the blossom, clothed in soft ruff of green vine, and pull out the pistil to reveal a glistening bead of honeyed nectar. The sweet ambrosia of honeysuckle nectar is almost nearly as indicative of the season as its scent.
Though honeysuckle may seem inherently Southern, there are actually over 180 species spanning the entire Northern hemisphere. It’s true that about twenty of those breeds are native to North America, but twenty hail from Europe, twenty from India, and a whopping 100 kinds of honeysuckle originated in China. The honeysuckle we know and love takes a familiar form: trailing, lime-green vines dotted with fragrant clusters of sunshine or cream-colored blossoms. But with 180 varietals, honeysuckle comes in countless shapes and sizes. Most are thickly-climbing vines, but some have thickly-shrubbed bodies. Some honeysuckle vines also carry lightly-poisonous bright red or deep blue berries in addition to their signature blooms.
It’s these large varieties of honeysuckle and their troublesome berries that have lowered the esteem of honeysuckle in the modern conscience. Japanese honeysuckle, a particularly hardy variety of the vine, was first introduced to North America in 1823. The humid, heated environment of the South proved to be the optimal breeding ground for the Asian vine and, in a unique act of symbiosis, local wildlife fell in love with the berries. Between the ideal climate and the helpful mouths and beaks of animals, the new species spread quickly across the South. Today many gardeners and horticulturists curse the invasive weed that, like its kudzu cousin, strangles unlucky plants in its path.
And yet honeysuckle remains an iconic botanical piece of the South. Its efflorescent vines grace the fronts of Southern manors and the brick of back alleyways alike. Its scent lingers in the glass bulbs of the finest fragrances and in the wax of cheap candles, its blossoms gracing elegant invitations and lurid tattoos. The vine and its gracious blossom are the great equalizers of the South. They reach high to the sun, wide to the trees, regardless of their location. Their scent drifts through breezes dampened by spring rains and dry with the droughts of summer. No matter the place or the period, every Southerner, old and young, rich and poor, will pause and breathe in that languid draft of honeysuckle—that essence of home.
SEE MORE HONEYSUCKLE PHOTOS HERE