Earlier today, while collecting samples in the Explorer’s Garden area of the Arboretum, I came across a surprising sight. Apparently unaware of Punxsutawney Phil’s recent prediction, this Narrowleaf Standish Honeysuckle (Lonicera standishii forma lancifolia) has begun breaking its winter dormancy. Covered in expanding buds and unfurling, tender foliage, this shrub appears to have jumped forward to an early spring.
These swelling buds, with their purple and green hues, are a beautiful but untimely sight. Honeysuckles are among the earliest woody plants to respond to rising spring temperatures and extended day length, typically sporting juvenile leaves in late February/early March. Early leaf-out timing may give a plant a competitive edge–an especially important adaptation for shrubs that receive very little light in the understory.
This shrub, probably responding to extended stretches of warm weather and bright sunlight, has unwittingly exposed its vulnerable tissues in the dead of winter. These young tissues are particularly susceptible to freezing temperatures. Once expanded, they will likely be killed off by frosts before winter’s end. Luckily, this plant looks robust enough to survive the loss of a few photosynthetic assets.
Interestingly enough, this species, a native of China, is semi-evergreen in our climate, and has retained many of its mature lower leaves. In late winter, pairs of brilliantly white, fragrant flowers will emerge. For now, we’ll have to wistfully enjoy these precocious buds as early signs of spring.