A few years back a relative asked my husband and I if we were “done” with our landscaping. I laughed because I thought he was joking. But he was serious. A lot of gardeners would argue, me and my husband included, that our landscape is never “done.” There is always something to be improved, moved, or otherwise changed.

One of the projects in progress at my house involves the border of plantings around our fenced in vegetable garden. Four years ago, I was looking for some small to medium-sized shrubs for this area, and I stumbled on honeyberry in one of my favorite catalogs.

What drew me to the honeyberry shrubs was the fact that they appeared to be attractive shrubs for the landscape, with the added bonus of edible fruit. They also reportedly very hardy, tolerating a wide range of environmental conditions. They will survive winters in at least Hardiness Zone 3, making it a great choice for gardeners in Northern climates.

Further research revealed honeyberry, Lonicera caerulea, is a type of honeysuckle. Another common name for honeyberry is Sweet Honeysuckle or Edible Honeysuckle. This explains, at least in part, this plant’s hardiness.

There are several species of vining and bush honeysuckle that are considered invasive, meaning they crowd out desired plants. Not every honeysuckle is invasive, but overall, honeysuckles in general tend to have a vigorous growth habit.

One of my jobs growing up was helping to trim the shrubs around the house, some of which were honeysuckle. My dad would scalp the honeysuckles down to the ground about every other year, and within a year they were over 6 foot tall again.

While it is a honeysuckle, honeyberry is not considered invasive. It is native to cool temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. There are nine different naturally occurring varieties of honeyberry known. I am growing is Lonicera caerulea var. edulis, a native of Russia.

This variety of honeyberry is the one most commonly sold for home gardens. It reportedly has no significant pest or disease problems. Full sun is usually the best site for this plant. Honeyberry will tolerate even the poorest of soils. The one intolerable condition is standing water.

Its soft grey-green foliage is a nice addition to the landscape. Each year, my honeyberry bushes have gotten fuller, and now at four years old they are just about mature size – 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Other varieties may be much larger, six feet tall or more.

Honeyberry plants are self infertile, meaning you need more than one cultivar to produce fruit. I have two cultivars of Lonicera caerulea var. edulis: ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Blue Velvet’.

Many sources of honeyberry advertise these plants as extremely early fruiting plants, producing fruits at least two weeks earlier than the earliest strawberries. This early fruiting trait is not true for all cultivars. The ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Blue Velvet’ cultivars I have are late bloomers, flowering in May, with their fruit ripening in July and August. The fruits resemble an oval shaped blueberry, and reportedly taste a lot like a blueberry, too. Last year, my bushes produced fruit, but the birds beat me to them. Maybe this year I will guard my harvest with some bird netting in time.

So far, my opinion of Honeyberry is they are indeed hardy plants. The local rabbit population investigated the honeyberry bushes when they were first planted and mowed one down nearly to the ground. As with the honeysuckle bushes near my parents’ house, the Honeyberry bush is a survivor, little green shoots rising like a Phoenix from the brown stump the rabbits left.

In subsequent years the plants have survived being stepped on while the garden fence was being painted and continued assault by the local rabbit population. They have survived and thrived, despite extremes in temperature and moisture. I’m also very impressed that the bushes are doing so well with a minimum of care.

My honeyberry bushes are planted near some extremely high maintenance blueberry bushes we have been coddling since we moved into our house nine years ago. Blueberries need acidic soil in order to produce well. In our new subdivision, we have a lot of clay soil, which tends to be alkaline. We have tested and amended our soil in an effort to create the acidic conditions the blueberries need, but we have only harvested about six blueberries. Not six bushes’ worth. Six individual berries.

A couple of these blueberry bushes died over the incredibly harsh winter we just had. So I’m taking the opportunity to replace them with honeyberries. I am usually very reluctant to give up on a plant, but nine years is long enough. I would much rather give that space to plants that will yield tasty fruit without a lot of special treatment.

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Jennifer Schultz Nelson is a unit educator in horticulture for the University of Illinois Extension


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