Say the word “honeysuckle” and most people immediately think of sweetness, but there’s a lot more to know about Lonicera japonica than simply its appealing fragrance and flavor. Horticulturists and herbalists will argue over its value, but however you feel about Japanese honeysuckle, this twining vine holds tightly to both your psyches and your landscapes. For centuries, honeysuckle has symbolized intense love and devotion and has more recently made its way into modern culture as a symbol of sexuality in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and in countless contemporary song titles and lyrics. Many parts of the plant have played a prominent role in herbal healing throughout the ages and across continents, and some of these applications are still in use today.
A vigorous vine that can grow up to 30 feet in length, Lonicera japonica is best known for its fragrant, trumpet-like flowers that start out white and fade to a light, creamy yellow. The flowers bloom in pairs between the semi-evergreen ovoid leaves, also growing in pairs, and the fruit of this vine is black versus the red berry of European honeysuckle. Because of its vigorously twining nature, Lonicera japonica is considered an invasive weed throughout the United States, quickly taking over an area and strangling out all other plant life. A sort of botanical version of Fatal Attraction, this clinging vine has horticulturists frantically looking for a way to control it.
Lonicera japonica, or jin yin hua as its known in China, has been in use as an herbal medicine in Asia for centuries. Traditionally used to cool and bring a body back into balance when it suffered from “hot” conditions such as fever, abscesses, and dysentery, the flowers and stems of this plant are still used to treat a variety of illnesses. An infusion made from fully opened flowers can be used to treat coughs and minor respiratory illnesses, as can syrup made from the same. A decoction, or boiled and strained mixture, made from the flower buds is used in the early stages of a fever, and a tincture, a mixture of the plant and alcohol made from buds is used to treat digestive problems. A decoction made from the stems can be used to ease joint pain and flu symptoms. Flower nectar has also been used externally to speed healing of wounds, scars, and acne.
The flowers have numerous culinary uses, primarily in desserts such as puddings, jellies, and ice cream. The flowers can also be used as a sweet component in savory sauces. Honeysuckle flowers can easily be made into a syrup that makes a great mixer for cocktails. Simply fill a bowl with the flowers with green bases removed, cover with water and refrigerate overnight. Add one cup sugar per one cup liquid to a saucepan, heat over a low flame until sugar is dissolved, then allow to cool. Squeeze in a wedge of lemon and add to your favorite libation. The leaves can be used for a salad, but only after parboiled to reduce their toxicity.
Because there are numerous varieties of honeysuckle growing wild, it’s best that you don’t harvest unless you’re absolutely certain of the variety. Lonicera japonica can cause a rash on contact. Never use herbal remedies without first checking with your doctor, and always be vigilant for signs of adverse or allergic reactions. Women that are pregnant or breastfeeding may want to avoid use. Lonicera japonica may slow blood clotting, so those anticipating surgery or taking anticoagulant drugs should not use honeysuckle.