I’ll come clean. I love honeysuckle.
When I was a little boy, my grandparents used it as a landscaping plant to spruce up the wooden fence dividing their property from their neighbors’. I have a distinct memory of my aunt showing me how to pluck the flowers and pinch off the base so that I could drink the nectar. I used to mash up the red berries and using them to paint on the sidewalk in front of their house. My mom once told me she and her sister used to use the young branches of the same shrub to braid flowered crowns for each other when they were little. It was one of the first plants I ever formed a sentimental connection to. Sometimes when I catch a passing whiff of it during the summer, those memories come back to me.
It seems ironic that now, almost twenty years later, it is the single most pervasive invasive species in the state that I live in. All over the state of Tennessee, honeysuckle is outgrowing old-growth trees and turning once diverse forests into monocultures.
Up in our classroom, it is a blight. Because our woods haven’t been tended by anyone in about 40 years, it has been allowed to grow rampant. Our particular variety is what many people in the state of Tennessee call Bush Honeysuckle, but it’s true name is Amur Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii). The name is taken from the Amur River, which divides eastern Russia from Chinese Manchuria, where it originally hails from. Because of its abundance, the cedar and oak trees native to our neck of the woods are scarce, and the ones we do find are in pretty bad shape.
Over the past few months, honeysuckle has come to embody an intersection between the curiosity of my childhood years and the ecological responsibility required by my adult life. Each time I use my bamboo saws to cut down a huge specimen, I watch my students climb into the foliage to collect the berries just like I did as a child. They comment on the smell of its flowers and the texture of its wood. They climb in it and hang from its branches. To them, it is the most dynamic, versatile, and abundant material available for their young minds to explore. Before my eyes, they are forming the same sentimental connections to honeysuckle that I did as a child. Through this beast of a plant, they are learning to view the growing things around them with a sense of wonderment and excitement that may very well carry into the rest of their lives. Mine did, after all.
And while I watch them play, I remember that this plant they are learning to love, that is inspiring them to form a deeper connection to their local flora and fauna, is the very thing that is killing it. As an adult who knows about invasive species and dangers they pose to biodiversity, who wants so badly to stop our forest from becoming an eroded wasteland of single-species monotony, part of me feels the need to destroy every last stalk of honeysuckle I come across. Part of me knows that if honeysuckle had never come to central Tennessee, there would be more conifers, more birds, and far less lyme disease. Part of me wants to tell my students to hate honeysuckle and be wary of careless tampering with ecosystems in the name of aesthetics and convenience.
While it has been a struggle, teaching in the clearing has forced me to find a balance between these two part of me. Whether I like it or not, honeysuckle is a part of my students’ lives just like it was part of mine. Every day, my students and I find the largest specimen we can, cut it down, and drag it back to the clearing. While we are aggressively killing it, I try to present the activity as less of an execution and more of a celebration of the learning opportunities honeysuckle has to offer us. Some days, we consume the tree in its entirety. We pluck the leaves and use scissors to trim them into basic geometric shapes, numbers, letters, and even smiley faces. We use the berries to make our own red paint. We measure, cut, trim, and sand the trunk into blocks the students use to explore engineering, balance, trajectory, friction, and other basic principles of physics.
We even use it for shelter. During nap time, the students like to use fallen branches like parasols to shade their faces while they rest. Some of the older students have experimented with building lean-tos; they create a frame, then weave stray honeysuckle branches to create walls. Our yurt, which comfortably seats ten students, is in essence a tarp thrown over a dome of living honeysuckle bound together by cord.
It is true that honeysuckle is destroying the flora of Tennessee. But it is also cultivating the young minds that live here. It is strengthening their muscles. It is sharpening their wits and emboldening their spirits. It is helping them to laugh, smile, play, and learn. It is deepening their connection to each other, the Earth, and even themselves.