Off schedule: Italian honeysuckle

Judith Adam

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Italian honeysuckle is blooming later than usual. (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)

The lovely Italian honeysuckle (Lonicera caprifolium, Zone 6, possibly Zone 5 with protection) is finally in flower, and is quite late this year. I expected it to bloom while the spring air was still nippy, about the last week of April. But I won’t complain, as it has increased its flower count and is thriving on the deck railing. I mentioned this plant in a February 22 blog item, when the leaf buds were prominent and on schedule, but it has taken this long time to actually burst into bloom. I think it was encouraged by early warmth, then slowed down when the cold snap confused many plants.

Erratic temperatures this spring created havoc with blooming schedules, and perhaps a few tragedies. Thinking back to that false flush of early warmth in March, I was sure we had caught a break on the weather. (This must have caused laughter at The Weather Network.) I was digging, pulling stored plants out of the garage, moving mountains about the yard, while the early sun was warm and encouraging. Buds of all kinds were swelling, and cracking open earlier than ever before in this garden.

This is not good for plants. Rising air and soil temperatures trigger the production of growth hormones that cause buds to swell and open. Plants will resist a certain amount of early warmth, having learned through evolutionary experience that late winter temperatures can briefly rise and then fall back down to freezing levels. But if early warmth is extended, plants break dormancy and hormone production begins to influence growth before spring is actually established. The inevitable tumble back down to traditional late winter temperatures catches plants at a vulnerable moment. Some simply shut down and wait for warmth to return; others are less capable of controlling initiated growth. A case in point is my beloved moss rose ‘Etna’, which began to swell buds, then was hit with frost. The red buds dried up and died. It hasn’t recovered, and the canes are now dying. I’ll continue giving it water and Epsom salts, hoping to stimulate new wood from the crown. But I’m not optimistic.

Other confused plants are fortunately less dramatic. The gorgeous ‘Beauty of Moscow’ lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘Krasavitsa Moskvy’, syn. S. v. ‘Beauty of Moscow’, Zone 4), has opened its palest pink-mauve buds to double white flowers with strong spicy scent, and seems to be on a schedule. But right next to it, the deep pink Preston lilac ‘Miss Canada’ (Syringa ‘Miss Canada’) is also in bloom, a full two weeks early. Two Japanese tree peonies are almost finished, and various columbines are full of flowers.

Well, I’m a little confused myself. Fortunately, I planted a second ‘Etna’ rose last year, just for insurance, in case something happened to the first shrub. I’m glad I did!

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