On a recent hike in the woods, the smell of honeysuckle pulled me into old childhood memories so quickly it was as if I had stepped through a door. Coming upon a clearing—likely an old homestead site—the sweet scent of the Honeysuckle in bloom wafted like an invisible cloud over the entire glade. Their vines had spread over most of the area, and the clusters of their flowers with both white and yellow blossoms hung from the vines in open invitation. The white ones were looking fresh and new to the gathering, while the yellow ones drooped with the weight of their ripeness. As I picked a promising bloom to taste its nectar, I fell into a deep reverie of summers long ago. Nothing was more magical to me when I was young than to find a perfectly ripe Honeysuckle flower. I would gently pinch the end of it to pull the pistil through the flower throat, capturing the drop of sweet nectar and letting it land on my tongue, feeling its pure deliciousness flow through me.
The name Honeysuckle comes directly from this centuries-old tradition of pulling off the ends of the flowers to suckle the nectar inside. Thinking of the myriads of children over the centuries, discovering this nectar, sends me reeling through time. How many centuries have our forebearers been following the scent of ripe Honeysuckle? How many millennia have the Honeysuckle vines been reaching out to humans, enticing them with their nectar and teaching them to join the other insects, birds, and animals in expanding their habitat?
There is something in the spiraling nature of the Honeysuckle vines that embodies visually the longing of the very life-force that our Mother Earth infuses into all growing things. Shakespeare writes about the Honeysuckle in Act IV, Scene I of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, taking us bodily into Honeysuckle’s embrace:
Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms…
So doth the woodbine, the sweet Honeysuckle
These sensual words truly capture the allure of the curve of the Honeysuckle vines twisting around one another. How long have these vines been entwined with us? Woodbine is an old-fashioned name for Honeysuckle, and I imagine a time when we lived in a balanced harmony with them, loving their blossoms and the honey they produced, harvesting excess vines for rope and baskets, and revering their flourishing and vigorous growth. I laughed with glee and awe that day in the woods at the unrestrained exuberance of these Honeysuckle vines. This old homestead site—undisturbed by humans for many decades—demonstrated to me so poignantly how our Mother Earth is always working to heal the land.
Today, many varieties of Honeysuckle have been labeled “invasive,” especially the ones imported from Asia in the early 1800’s to North America. We rarely look at what a plant has to offer once it has been labeled as invasive or as a weed. They simply become “bad” and unwanted. Nowadays, we relentlessly cut back—or worse, spray with herbicides—most vining plants, keeping them at least well-trimmed, if not eradicated, in our yards and landscapes.
While being enraptured by the abundance of these wild Honeysuckle vines in the forest, I was also aware of how in my own yard I am deeply conditioned to control them. Just three years ago, I spent two months clearing very aggressive vines from the forested part of my backyard because they were pulling down and taking over the mature trees. At the time, it felt like I was bringing balance back to that piece of land, but now I am not so sure. This small pocket of forest at the edge of my backyard is recovering from being disturbed twenty years before and from ongoing overgrazing by the deer that continually eat all the new growth. This vine was something they wouldn’t eat. Perhaps the long-term design of the vines—longer than my lifetime—would bring a longer lasting balance.
We want our world to stay like it is and to progress according to our human designed plans. What we know is easier—we don’t like change. We don’t like Honeysuckle and other “invasive” vines consuming our suburban landscapes. Understandably, we like our ecosystems to be dependable, growing the foods we like, the flowers and trees we know and love, and for them not to disrupt our monetary economies. But evolution is the relentless way of nature, especially in these days of unprecedented rates of change to our climates.
Vines often get disparaged because they don’t grow in orderly, nice, and predictable fashion and they don’t stay in their own lane. Their slithering crawling nature often reminds people of snakes—another maligned being. We talk about “invasive” plants as if they are unwanted immigrants, as though they are something “other” that we fear and must eradicate. Imperialistic leaders historically and still today use similar terms—invasion, threat, infest—to justify genocidal violence against groups of people they want to keep out, lock up, or whose land they want to steal. And there actually is a literal war ongoing against invasive plants. The concept of “non-native” and “invasive” plants being “bad” only started relatively recently, first with the Nazis and then in 1958 with a book titled “The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants” by Charles Elton. In the late 1990’s, the National Invasive Species Council was started by executive order with help from Monsanto and other chemical companies who looked to profit selling herbicides.
Defining a plant as “invasive” in an ecosystem assumes that there is a base line in time before which there were only “native” plants, and that is not as simple as it sounds. Plants have been migrating, immigrating, and evolving for millions of years. It is what they do, and they have trained us well, along with other animals and insects, to be their legs and help them travel great distances to increase their habitat.
These “invasive” vines have adapted to be at our side, waiting for the exposed dirt that we continually create, so they can cover it and heal the scars. They are a stabilizing force, bringing scarce nutrients to depleted soils that won’t grow much else, weaving new life into the dirt. Because vines don’t have to put a lot of energy into making upright support structures, they can put all that energy into growing rapidly. And they are truly growing more swiftly now, in both tropical and temperate forests, according to numerous studies. Apparently, vines grow faster than trees when the carbon levels increase in the atmosphere.
What if we can’t take our ecosystems back to the way they were, or even keep them the same as they are today? When we start working with the vines and the “invasives,” then we can allow ourselves to explore new ways of being in the world that might be unfolding. What if Honeysuckle, and all the vines that we see “taking over” are just part of a larger regeneration scheme of the Earth that we can’t see the pattern of yet? We can’t understand the long-term plan, “the long story,” says Perdita Finn, co-author of The Way of the Rose. The vines and their purpose for the Earth’s ecosystems will evolve over the next several thousand years, or even million years. This is the scale of time that the Earth operates in.
What if we asked the vines—the “invasives”—questions, instead of trying to control them? Questions like: “What are you here to teach us?” “What does the land need from you?” “How can we work with you?” and even, “How are you an answer to our prayers?” Successfully navigating our changing world may increasingly depend on our ability to ask these kinds of questions.
How would it change the way we interact with our ecosystems if we could know deep in our bones this dance of longing and devotion that plants permeate our world with so unconditionally? Would we be able to treat them with more reverence? Would we be able to live more closely inside our natural world? At the heart of the longing that drives Honeysuckle to spiral and fiercely proliferate, is that spark of desire we call Eros. Holding the mystery of our very being, Eros embodies the full life-force energy of our Mother Earth.
Honeysuckle shared this message that day in the woods: “I am exuberant in my playfulness. Some call me “too much,” with my propensity to wrap my love around everything. Reaching for you with the longing of eons, I entwine you in my embrace and offer my sweet nectar to you. Holding you gently, wrapping my devotion around your heart is how I thrive and evolve. Let me release your own wild longing so that you too can flourish generation after generation.”
What can we learn from Honeysuckle about our own longing—our heart’s desire? The Honeysuckle’s longing is still as potent as when it first evolved. Their “too-muchness” has enabled them to spread the world over and to love us with abandon. This story of their Eros is the key to their success. The world needs all our unrestrained, unindoctrinated, longing for life itself to guide us as we hurtle our way into the next evolution of this planet, one generation at a time.
Sources and Further Reading:
Invasive Plant Medicine by Timothy Lee Scott
Way of the Rose by Clark Strand & Perdita Finn