Wednesday 14 March 2012


In The Wood (a section of The Worm Forgives the Plough, republished in Penguin's very attractive series of little books, English Journeys, and available at 1p on Amazon), John Stewart Collis describes thinning a wood and restoring it to health...
'During my work of clearing there was one thing which gave me particular satisfaction. This was the cutting away of the honeysuckle. Belonging to the parasitic company of plants that engage trees for climbing up instead of rising of their own accord, they often provide grim spectacles in the woods of merciless throttling and strangulation. Ascending from the bottom of the trunk they spiral their way upwards, clinging tightly to the bark. This hinders the sap, the tree's circulation, and after a year or two the young trunk itself becomes a spiral-shaped pole, bulging out in a remarkable manner, as if an erect rubber tube full of air had been tightly wound with cord in spiral formation so that it bulged out between the cord (though in the case of the victimised tree or branch the bulge appears at the cord of honeysuckle). The tree struggles to live in spite of the stranglehold, but generally in vain. It is apt to die and rot and bend over, a parched ruin upon which the honeysuckle thrives, spurning the base degrees by which it did ascend...'

This is harsh indeed - it's as if he's writing about Lianas, or the terrible Kudzu that has engulfed great swathes of the American South. Honeysuckle is a most lovable woodland plant - not only for the beauty of its flowers and their fragrance, but (from my perspective) for being the food plant of that beautiful butterfly, the White Admiral. Also for its alternative name, Woodbine - which, bizarrely, was adopted by W.D. & H.O. Wills for a cheap brand of cigarettes that played its part in winning the Great War, and was still available in pocketmoney-friendly packs of five, in my earliest smoking days...
Richard Mabey, in his mighty Flora Britannica, takes a much more charitable view of the Honeysuckle (which is not, of course, 'parasitic', as it takes nothing from its host tree but physical support). And those strangely twisted barley sugar sticks that the clinging Honeysuckle can produce were, as Mabey points out, a popular prop among Scottish music hall acts. Och aye - another of the Honeysuckle's gifts to mankind.