A Gardening Journal

Mandarin Honeysuckle

Purple foliage in a hardy vine?  Quick:  Name five!  OK, name even one .

 

Here's the best answer:  'Mandarin' honeysuckle, a hybrid of a Chinese species, Lonicera tragophylla, with Lonicera x brownii.  It's a spectacle, a plant that rewards (and, as we'll see, demands) your repeated and detailed attention the whole season. 

 

This is the young Spring foliage, a deep purple that is almost a shock when backed by the historically-correct glaring white of my typical New England clapboard carriage house. 

 

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I'm grateful for the white, actually.  It's worth highlighting purple foliage in a hardy vine because the purple is such a sometime thing:  There's no hardy vine with purple foliage that keeps purple in the Summer heat.  Not one.  (Oh ye Gods of Foliage, Hear our prayer:  More heat-tolerant purple leaves, please.) 

 

The most you can hope for with a hardy vine is a Spring fling with its purple foliage.  So make the most of it.  Growing 'Mandarin' honeysuckle is one way, because its foliage is the darkest of any hardy honeysuckle. 

 

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In truth, the stark white of the carriage house may be a powerfully contrasting backdrop, but it's a blunt instrument instead of an inspiration.

 

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Looking closer, only the very newest leaves are the darkest; even by the time a pair is the third down on the stem, its purple has already greened-out a bit.  And that "purple" is as much brown as it is a purple.  If it weren't Spring, when you were certain that honeysuckle leaves were in fact new and fresh and eager, you could otherwise think, "Brown?  I want to have brown leaves in the garden?" 

 

And then there are the veins: Pink. 

 

So then, what background other than flat white might be a more nimble and flavorful partner to brown-purple-pink?  Before you answer, remember the flowers to come:  Orange with yellow insides.  Can anything harmonize first with brown-purple-pink, but then, with equal fervor, with green-orange-yellow?

 

Naturally-bleached shingles, now that I think of it.  But being in an historic district, we can't just switch from clapboards to shingles, let alone because of a demanding honeysuckle.  (Ah, the narrow-eyed, finger-drumming-on-the-table dismissal from the Historic District Commissioners.  "Mr. Raymond, let me see if I've got your request clear.  You want to shingle a portion of your carriage house because you have a "demanding honeysuckle"?  I shiver at the thought.)

 

Which is why it's a relief that the white clapboards were already at hand:  Even though white doesn't really go with everything—at least not in the sense of sitting in the next chair, picking up that sax, and really getting down—at least it isn't off on a melody that sings with pink but only argues with orange.

 

White: It can keep time but it sure can't improvise.  It fits it, but it doesn't riff.

 

Well, humph.  There isn't another solution?  The HDC certainly wouldn't let me repaint the carriage house seasonally with 'Mandarin'-compatible colors.  And 'Mandarin' is growing out (and up) into a large panel of a plant too.  Not at all the size or shape that could be handled in a container, lugging the plant over to the background of the month.  

 

Perhaps, though, a temporary 'Mandarin' backdrop?  Placed between it and the carriage house and hence beyond the reach (or rather the grasp) of the HDC.  One color for the Spring purple-brown-pink, and another for the Summer green-orange-yellow.  Palest pink, then palest yellow.  But of what?  Fabric?  Painted masonite?  As long as it wasn't fastened to the carriage house, I'd be free. 

 

Heavens, what a high-maintenance 'Mandarin' I've got.  Well consider the name: mandarin.  Elite, demanding, full-of-oneself, hyper-educated, accustomed to plenty of servants.  A veritable Leona Helmsley of a vine, 'Mandarin' won't settle for less than seasonally-adjusted backdrops, and neither should you.

 

I sigh and obey—next year.

 

 

Here's how to grow 'Mandarin' honeysuckle:

 

Latin Name

Lonicera tragophylla x brownii 'Mandarin'

Common Name

Mandarin honeysuckle

Family

Caprifoliaceae, the honeysuckle family

What kind of plant is it?

Twining deciduous-to-evergreen flowering vine

Hardiness

Zones 4 - 9, possibly even down to Zone 3.  This is a Canadian hybrid, so greater cold tolerance is always a priority.

Habit

Energetic strongly-upright multi-stem vine that climbs by twining its stems around narrow-enough supports, like small branches, wires, narrow metal pipes or poles, or wood stakes.  (It won't twine around, say, the trunk of a shade tree, or even the wood poles of a pergola.) 

Rate of Growth

Fast

Size in ten years

15 - 20 feet tall.  The spread depends upon training to grow outward not just upward. 

Texture

Medium-size oval leaves are a neutral texture, neither small enough to be lacey or delicate, nor large enough to be heavy or tropical.

Grown for

Copper-burgundy Spring foliage matures (alas) to dark green—when a profuse crop of showy flowers begins.  They are narrow orange tubes with yellow interiors, somewhat fragrant, but appealing to hummingbirds even so.

Flowering season

Sterile, so the plant puts its energy into more flowers instead of into seeds.  The flowering season is particular long—much of the Summer.

Culture

Sun or part shade, with good well-drained soil and, right from the get-go, welcoming wires or supports on which to twine:  Stems that have "found their twine" grow faster than those that are still hunting around for something to climb up on.

How to handle it

It's worth it to pinch a young plant for a year or two so it bushes out.  Guide some of the resultant young stems outward, so that the vine covers width not just height.  (Untrained, it will tend to a free-form column of growth.) 

 

Use either a fan-shaped trellis or create your own more permanent structure of metal pipe and vertical wires.  The spectacular flowers are displayed in front of the foliage, so the wider and taller you can train the vine, the more surface area it will have for floral display.  While a honeysuckle that's allowed to grow ad libitum will still flower heavily, one that's been trained outward into a wall of foliage will flower with startling and even memorable profusion. 

 

Prune in Fall or early Spring: The flowers are produced at the tips of new growth made from last year's wood, and pruning helps inspire lots of just such new growth.  Plus, honeysuckles produce a lot of "breast wood": stems that wander outward from the main scaffold of twining growth, usually to bloom, but also year-by-year creating more and more cantilevering bulk.  Pruning it off in Fall or early Spring not only helps increase the number of new-growth stems that produce the flowers, it also helps restrain their overall dimension more to the vertical plane, which in turn increases the density and the visual power of the floral display. 

Downsides

Because Mandarin is sterile, there's no worry about self-seeding volunteers terrorizing your neighbor's gardens, or the surrounding woods.  Honeysuckles can be prone to a number of pests—mildew, aphids, and leaf-spot among them.  In my experience, unstressed and well-trained plants are noticeably resistant.  Mandarin has been trouble-free. 

Variants

The honeysuckle family is enormous, with scores of garden-worthy vines, shrubs, and groundcovers to tempt you.

Availability

Garden centers as well as on-line.

Propagation

By cuttings, or by bending longer stems to the ground before letting them climb; they'll eventually root, and you can sever them for independent plants.

Native habitat

Lonicera x 'Mandarin' is a hybrid of Lonicera tragophylla, native of China, and Lonicera x brownii, which is, itself, a hybrid of Lonicera sempervirens, native of the eastern United States, and Lonicera hirsuta, native to the upper Midwest of the United States.

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