Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, this is a most strange and exotic shrub that seems to naturalise easily in the woodlands of north London – there is one in Coldfall Wood, and another by the bus stop on Highgate Hill. It is a plant much used by gamekeepers as cover for their pheasants, just like that other common shrub, Snowberry, although the pheasant keepers of East Finchley are rather few and far between. A more likely explanation is that the tasty dark-red berries, which appear in early autumn, are eaten by birds and spread through defecation. The bushes can often be seen under popular perching spots, which adds some weight to the theory.As the name suggests, the plant comes from the Himalayan region and South West China. It is not strictly speaking a honeysuckle, as these belong to the genus Lonicera, though it is in the same family. The flowers, with their reddish-purple bracts and white flowers, have a distinctively fleshy quality. Some people also refer to it as the shrimp plant, and I can see why. The foliage varies from lime-green to greenish-yellow, with the latter being a popular buy at garden centres.
Unfortunately, poor old Himalayan Honeysuckle has been declared a noxious weed in New Zealand and Australia, and is a problem in the Azores, the Canary Islands and Madeira. In the UK it is, in truth, a rather sorry-looking plant if the conditions are not ideal. It quickly becomes etiolated and flabby, the flowers often don’t reach their full potential, and I suspect that although it often ends up in woods, it would be much happier perched on a mountain side exposed to full sun. It is not thought to be particularly invasive in the UK, where an occasional speciman pops up but does not go on to dominate the area, and it probably provides a welcome boost for the birds.
Himalayan Honeysuckle is also known as flowering nutmeg and as toffee berry, and on the ‘Of Plums and Pignuts‘ blog, Alan Carter refers to it as ‘the king of instant consumption’. He calls it the treacle tree, and I cannot better his description of the taste of the berries:
‘No plant in the forest garden divides opinion like leycesteria: you either love or hate its startling mixture of molasses sweetness and bitter aftertaste’
I find myself very sorry that I have never tasted any, and must keep an eye on the one in my garden to remedy this oversight. I am also reminded of Fergus the Forager’s recipe for Himalayan Honeysuckle Fig Rolls. However, Fergus does also mention that, much like figs, the berries might have what one might politely describe as a ‘loosening effect’ on the bowels, so take it easy, friends! However, I cannot resist including a picture of the completed pastries. I would gobble them up in no time.
Humans and birds might like the fruit, but the caterpillar of the Vapourer moth ( Orgyia antiqua), a creature of the most catholic of tastes, has taken to the leaves of Himalayan honeysuckle with great enthusiasm.The caterpillar has glands containing a toxin at their rear end, and can sometimes become a pest in UK cities, with contact resulting in an unpleasant rash. What a beauty though, a cross between a toothbrush and a sunburst. The adult moth is rather less striking, although the antennae are splendid.This species has the most interesting life cycle. The female is wingless and emerges from her cocoon, ‘calling’ to the male by releasing a pheromone. The male finds the female, mates with her, and then she lays her eggs on the cocoon that she’s just emerged from.
I love how the eggs look like tiny mushrooms.
In Northern India and Nepal, a paste from the leaves of Himalayan honeysuckle is used as a cure for head lice and dandruff. It has also been used as an anti-helmintic (cure for worms) in Nepal. The roots of the plant form part of a traditional Chinese medicine remedy for acute cystitis.
So, Himalayan honeysuckle seems to me a most underrated plant, with its strange, pendulous flowers, its toffee-flavoured berries and its gangly habit. It always reminds me a little of a shy version of Audrey, the man-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors, although I’m sure that, unlike Audrey, this plant would always preface its demands to ‘feed me, Seymour!’ with a ‘if you don’t mind’. What do you think?
Photo One (Berries) – By Kurt Stüber  – caliban.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/mavica/index.html part of http://www.biolib.de, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5419
Photo Two (Fig Rolls) – http://fergustheforager.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/himalay7.jpg
Photo Three (Caterpillar) – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=318635
Photo Four (Male Moth) – By Ben Sale from UK –  The Vapourer (Orgyia antiqua), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43756718
Photo Five (Moths mating) – By Grmanners – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4109719
Photo Six (Moth eggs) – By Beentree – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2980292
Photo Seven (Audrey) – Andy Bowman (Photographer) from the Cathedral School Production, 2016 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/prideoftheirish/31082314036)