By Bill Lawyer
Proust may have had his “petites madeleines” to take him back to days gone by, but for me, it’s honeysuckles. The long tubes of these arching shrubs lure in hummingbirds and other pollinators to their nectar.
As I walk along Rye Beach Avenue near Hillside Place this time of year, there are several areas where a variety of vines are having a great time covering over the stonewalls in the no-mans land where the construction of another McMansion is taking place.
The most prominent of the vines are the honeysuckles — their creamy white flowers stand out in bright contrast to the somewhat dull and dusty greenery of the other creepers.
Getting back to the memories of childhood, one of my first encounters with honeysuckle stands out. When I was about 4, I remember finding them growing in and around several privet hedges along my neighborhood. They had just started to flower and caught my attention.
Back in those days not too much thought was given to the possible dangers of bringing in plants and animals native to other parts of the world. In fact, importing exotic or rare plants for use in creating beautiful gardens was often seen as a very good thing.
As a kid, I certainly wasn’t thinking about things like that. In fact, the one plant that I really did not like was poison ivy, which is actually a native.
Getting back to my childhood memory, the very first time I became aware of the “secret” of honeysuckle was a few weeks later, when I was walking with my father along a country road by my grandfather’s farm, near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
My father told me to stop for a moment, as he had something to show me. Pointing to a thick stand of honeysuckles, he said, “Here’s a juicy plant that tastes good and grows all over the place.” But, he added, “You have to know how to get what each flower offers you: a sweet drop of nectar.”
He picked a flower carefully from the vine, making sure that he removed the green bud (known as the calyx, as I learned a few years later), where the flower connects to the stem. Then he pinched the flower above the calyx, making sure to break through the petal.
Next, he pulled on the end of the flower, and as he pulled, a white string, part of the flower, came out. As he pulled, all the nectar emerged. This made it easy to suck the sweet liquid, which was like licking a juicy popsicle.
I can still remember looking at plants in a whole new light. At that time I had no idea about evolution, adaptation, or the food chain. I just thought it was amazing that a wild plant could produce something so tasty.
Not until much later, when studying botany in college, did I learn that the nectar of a honeysuckle is about 24 per cent sugar and glucose, as opposed to the sap of a sugar maple, which is 3 to 5 per cent sugar.
At the time, what I mostly remembered was the simple pleasure of a walk with my father on a country road on a summer day, learning something new and fun about a plant that grew everywhere for us to enjoy. I still remember it now.