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Common Honeysuckle

24th July 2020 @ 6:06am – by Charles Bradley
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Common Honeysuckle
Lonicera periclymenum

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During a walk through woodland or along lanes, especially on warm summer evenings, you may catch the heady perfume of honeysuckle. It brings back to me childhood memories of a walk along the footpath through fields and then an orchard to our neighbouring farm to buy milk. It is a scent which seemingly cannot be forgotten. I think it wonderful that the plant's system of seed distribution works towards ensuring that it keeps cropping up in natural (perhaps read 'untended') hedgerows.

Honeysuckle is a vigorously twining, climbing shrub that can grow up to 7 metres (23 feet) in woodland and along hedgerows. Its habit is to weave and scramble through available shrubs and trees. The stunningly elegant flowers emit their sweet scent most strongly at night, to attracted pollinating moths. Once pollinated, the red berries begin to develop and, once ripened (in late summer and autumn), they are eaten by birds, including thrushes, warblers and bullfinches. The seeds within the berries can pass unaffected through the birds' digestive systems and are excreted, together with their own little packets of fertilizer. Since this is done where the birds perch, this accounts for honeysuckle arriving in natural or untended hedgerows!

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As a long-standing native shrub, it is unsurprising that Shakespeare wrote about honeysuckle. Regrettably, his use of the actual name honeysuckle refers to what we now call Bindweed or Convolvulus and he gives honeysuckle its old country name – Woodbine.

"I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine."
(A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 2, Scene 1.)

To schoolboys of my generation, the name Woodbine had an entirely different connotation. W.D. & H.O. Wills manufactured a particularly cheap brand of cigarette called "Wild Woodbine", sold conveniently in packs of 10 in tobacconists who weren't worried about your age, or singly in some back-street shops. Many of my friends became life-long smokers having started smoking "gaspers" behind the bike shed. It didn't occur to anyone that the name Woodbine ought to suggest that you were smoking honeysuckle!

A century or more ago, smoking was mistakenly believed to be good for one's health and WW1 Troops were issued with two ounces of cheap rolling tobacco with their rations. The supply was often irregular and ready-rolled cigarettes like Woodbines, despite being expensive, were highly prized. The cigarettes in turn lent their name to a remarkable man, Rev'd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, who was a British Army Chaplain and was affectionately nicknamed "Woodbine Willie" by troops on the Western Front – to whom he handed out cigarettes along with Bibles and spiritual comfort. In December 1915, he was stationed at a railway station in Rouen, France, where he held communion with the troops, penned letters for the illiterate, and prayed with and for young soldiers. When they left for the frontline, he gave them copies of the New Testament and, to the 96 per cent of soldiers who smoked, one or more Woodbine cigarettes. From there, he was sent onwards to the battles of the Somme, Ypres and Messines, where he would crawl to the soldiers sheltering in the blood-soaked trenches, dispensing comfort, solace, hope and Woodbines. The Killed in Action (KIA) rate in these battles is believed to have been as high as 17.5 per cent – an average of 1,575 Allied deaths per day. Thousands more men were seriously injured. Woodbine Willy routinely prayed with dying soldiers on the frontline and was awarded the Military Cross after running through 'murderous machine gun-fire' at Messines Ridge to deliver morphine to men screaming in agony in No Man's Land – an act of great courage, love and faith.

As you walk along lanes or through the woodland on a warm summer evening, enjoy the heady scent of the "wild Woodbine" and perhaps give a thought to Rev'd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, who, to help his fellow men through extraordinarily difficult times, gave away well over three-quarters of a million "Wild Woodbine" cigarettes.

Ed: click on photos to enlarge

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