By Justin Cohn
(Decatur) Herald & Review
DECATUR — Candice Hart pointed to the forested area in Fairview Park just across from the swimming pool parking lot.
“Anything that’s green right now is honeysuckle,” said Hart, looking down at sea of green. “You can see how it can open completely cover the canopy floor.”
Honeysuckle, particularly bush or Amur honeysuckle, is public enemy No. 1 of conservationists and naturalists. It’s the first plant to bloom in the spring and the last to die in the fall. It’s native to Asia but was introduced to the United States as an ornamental plant in the late 1800s and spread in the 1960s when the Department of Soil and Water Conservation recommended it for erosion control.
Thirty years later, bush honeysuckle, which grows in dense thickets and crowds out native vegetation, has taken over areas all over the country, and in particular the Eastern and Central U.S. Decatur parks and conservation areas are covered in it.
“It chokes out all the native species you’d normally see growing in an open woodland environment,” University of Illinois Extension Horticulture Program Coordinator Beth Allhands said. “When you look out there and see all that honeysuckle, you should be seeing wildflowers right now, and it would be beautiful.”
The U of I Extension, along with the Macon County Conservation District and Decatur Park District, held a community effort earlier this month to help rid Fairview Park of honeysuckle.
“Last year we had a tree walk, and several people commented about the small area of the park that had been cleared of honeysuckle — it really stood out,” Allhands said. “So we said, ‘Let’s plan on going out and getting rid of it.'”
Bush honeysuckle prefers shade and often grows on forest floors, fence rows and near houses.
“We have a help desk at the Extension office where we answer homeowners’ questions, and one day we had two or three homeowners come in last summer saying they had this really nice-looking bush on their property, and they wanted to know if they should prune it now or wait until fall,” Allhands said. “It turned out to be honeysuckle — people don’t realize what it is. We really want to educate the public about it, because if people took care of this on their own property, it will help out the public property.”
Honeysuckle not only keeps other species from blooming and growing properly, it has little benefit.
Birds and other pollinators go crazy for the sugary red berries on the bush honeysuckle, But unlike some of the native Missouri flora that support wildlife, these plants have almost no nutritional value; they’re like Skittles for birds, which are the primary spreaders of honeysuckle.
“It gives them a sugar high but does nothing to help them survive,” Missouri Botanical Garden Vice President of Education Sheila Voss said.
U of I Extension Horticulture Educator Candice Hart said the berries cause other problems, too.
“The birds are attracted to them because they’re red and sweet, but then they poop everywhere,” Hart said.
Large, dense patches of honeysuckle provide cover for deer and increases deer populations, which in turn increases ticks and the chance of contracting tick borne disease. It’s also believed bush honeysuckle alters soil chemistry to make it inhospitable to other plants.
“It really changes the environment for the worse,” Hart said.
Because honeysuckle sprouts first and dies last, spring and fall are the best time to spot it, because the green stands out against the early fall and early spring landscapes.
Last year, volunteers helped clear the area of Fairview Park near Pavilion 2710. Implements from chain saws down to pruners were used to cut the honeysuckle bushes down or pull them out of the ground. Any remaining stumps were killed with herbicide. If untreated, they’ll quickly grow back.
“We use a kill stick; it’s a no-spray contact applicator that we dab on the stump,” Allhands said. “We make it ourselves.”
The Macon County Conservation District takes a couple different approaches in trying to clear its lands of honeysuckle.
“We do mechanical removal, where we cut it down with whatever we can and immediately treat the stumps with herbicides,” natural resources specialist Ethan Snively said. “We also do controlled burns. If we burn an area a few years in a row, the hope is it eventually kills them out.
“But there is no silver bullet for getting rid of it.”
Forest Park and Maryville University in St. Louis have even used goats in their plan of attack against the bush honeysuckle. Goats are most useful in eradicating young bush honeysuckles, munching them before they can grow into hearty shrubs that can grow 15 to 20 feet tall.
“You sit in a lawn chair and watch goats eat your weeds,” said Kyros Krakos, Maryville University associate professor of botany and organizer of the university’s annual Goat Week. “It’s great. As a botanist, I’m perfectly happy using goats to eradicate evil plants.”
While the area at Fairview Park cleared by volunteers is a stark contrast to the already-green honeysuckle-filled land next to it, there are already signs of green returning.
“We might not have gotten it treated right away,” said Marge Evans, master naturalist and master garner with the U of I Extension Office. “Some of it is coming back, so we’ll have to go back in and treat it again. It’s hard to get everything.”
Evans admitted it’s an uphill battle, and Snively agreed.
“It’s something, on a small scale, that can be done,” Snively said. “But it’s not necessarily feasible districtwide. Because even if we eradicated all of it, people who we border with have it on their property. It’s not something that’s ever just going to go away.
“Our focus is trying to manage it, keep the numbers down as low as we can. We try to get it out of certain high use areas and persuade who we can to remove it and plant something more beneficial.”
Hart said it’s better to think of it as a process than a war that can be won.
“It’s going to take a lot of determination,” Hart said. “It’s not just you come out and clear one time and you’re done. It’s an annual project.”