Monday, May 2, 2011

Honeysuckle Memory

When I was a child, my parents would release me to the outdoors after dinner. Summer dusks here are long, and all the other kids would be sprung in the same way, to “go outside and play.”  Our playground was enormous, patches of woods at either end of the street, and big, sloping back yards. Ours had a small creek running through it, and the other kids would come to it, seeming instinctively drawn to the water.
Behind the creek there was a neighbor’s chain-link fence, nearly invisible under a thick growth of honeysuckle vine. At dusk, the whole area would be fragrant with the sweet and heavy scent of the flowers. While we waited for fireflies, we’d pick blossoms. If you pulled away the stem gently enough, then squeezed the flower’s base, a drop of nectar would appear. Applied to the tip of the tongue, that nectar was the sweetest, most delicious taste imaginable. We’d pick blossom after blossom, until the fireflies -- which we called “lightnin’ bugs” -- would appear, flying slowly enough for us to catch them in jars. We’d make the jars our night lights. 
On a street adjacent to mine there is a small house, abandoned now, owned by the last descendent of the family which once held all the land around here. The yard is full of what my neighbors call “junk” and I think of as the natural antecedent to Southern folk art -- mysterious rusted metal objects, ancient yard tools, falling-down swing sets, a tilting shed. While walking by it the other day, I smelled a familiar, gardenia-like scent, and soon came across a big growth of honeysuckle vine on the chain-link fence. Breathing in the intoxicating aroma made me remember. I picked a blossom, and tasted the nectar. Sweet but not sugary, and fresh as dew, it was as delicious as that memory. I wondered, again, if these childhood experiences led me to perfume.
Honeysuckle is not looked upon kindly by conservationists or land-management experts. It’s invasive. Although Lonicera Japonica, the Japanese honeysuckle of the South, arrived in the US in the early 1800’s, it still isn’t called a native plant. Like kudzu, it’s a perennial vine, which can spread via underground rhizomes or by seeding. It twists itself around anything vertical, and can even choke out trees. But it supports a large variety of butterflies and moths, and provides children -- those lucky enough to be allowed to roam, anyway -- with a precious sensory experience.
There are around 180 types of honeysuckle, which grows primarily in the Northern Hemisphere, and about 20 in the U.S. It’s classified as a “noxious weed” in several states. Planting it is unlawful in New Hampshire. If you look it up, you’ll find a whole lot of Agricultural Department advice about getting rid of it. Burning it, poisoning it, ripping it out of the ground -- all these are covered, and more. Still, the plant thrives. You don’t see as much of it as you used to, though. It would never be allowed to grow in the manicured yards on my street, but that old abandoned homestead -- that’s another story.   A little clapboard house, a front porch with a swing, a yard full of God knows what all that stuff was -- and honeysuckle, climbing up the chain-link fence again.
There are a number of perfumes with a honeysuckle note. Creed makes “Chevrefueille,” which means “Honeysuckle” in French, and has an ambergris base. Diorella -- the modern version -- combines it with lemon and vetiver. Vintage Guerlain Chant d’Aromes lists it, as does vintage Arpege. Jo Malone makes a Honeysuckle and Jasmine scent, and Liz Zorn’s “Honeysuckle Bird” uses it along with linden, muguet, wild strawberry, rose, jasmine, green moss, light amber and natural vanilla.
Diptyque makes a “Chevrefueille” candle.
Photo by Pat Borow, all rights reserved.


Anonymous said...

How fortunate for you to have such wise parents.

Elisa said...

I had no idea it was invasive! We had honeysuckle in our yard when I was a kid too -- I never see it anymore.

Charna said...

What a beautifully written post! Upon reading I was instantly transported back to my childhood, playing outside at dusk and smelling the flowers. Unfortunately for me growing up in NH, minus the aroma of honeysuckle! I recently obtained some obscenely expensive honeysuckle absolute and it's stunning. Multifaceted, sweet and layered. I love it. Thank you for posting, I enjoyed reading this very much.

Bloody Frida said...

Lovely post!! I was one of those kids that had to be dragged in the house in the evening. And YES, we called them 'lightening bugs' too!

I want to grow honeysuckle in my yard - I better make sure it's not on the list here, though!

Thank you for making me smile!

Singlemalt said...

Truly a lovely post! My father was stationed at an Air Force base in Mississippi in the 60's. i remember the very warm evenings-languid-and the honeysuckle massed on fences around the base. My playmates would run and swoop around backyards and into the honeysuckle. We, too, would take the flowers and sip the nectar. How lucky to be able to just play.

I didn't know honeysuckle was considered invasive. All types? This makes me think that perhaps there should be a bit of honeysuckle in my small 'fume collection.

Thank you again. It brought a smile to my face.

Olfacta said...

Hi Arcadian -- It was just the way things were done back then, time & place -- all the kids went outside after dinner in the summer. It all seems much more structured now. I never see kids running outside the way we did. A shame in a way.

Olfacta said...

Hi Elisa -- The way they go on about it, you'd think it was kudzu! (Now, that's invasive.)

Olfacta said...

Hi Charna -- I can just imagine how expensive the absolute must be, as the flowers are similar to jasmine flowers. I guess honeysuckle could be included in the white flower family, although I haven't see it mentioned in that way.

Olfacta said...

Hi BF -- I'll send you some se...never mind. I'd hate to introduce a non-native plant! I mean, 1800, fergod'ssake I think they should just call it native by now.

I went by the old house the other day and they're clearing the folk art out of the yard -- the owner died last year -- I imagine they'll tear it down and build condos or something, so I think that honeysuckle's days are numbered. Too bad.

Olfacta said...

Hi Singlemalt -- You're welcome!

Ah, those Mississippi nights. We're about 1000 feet up the Piedmont Plateau in Atlanta, so we don't get quite the humidity they do there. But all the women have beautiful skin long past 40 so I guess that's a payoff of some kind. Me, I'll use moisturizer and live upland, thanks!

Vanessa said...

Beautiful post, which reminds me of hedgerows on childhood summer holidays. And I am another person who didn't know honeysuckle was a noxious weed! I have a bottle of Annick Goutal Le Chevrefeuille and love the way the sweetness is cut with citrus and a weird tomato stem note.

Anonymous said...

Childhood honeysuckle, and playing outside after supper... oh, yes. Wonderful.

And yep, I still send my kids out after supper, especially in the summer. "Go play." Sadly, there's no honeysuckle close to the house. We live on a beef cattle farm in SW VA, but our house is relatively new; there *is* honeysuckle just a little ways down the gravel road. I suspect that my youngest indulges in it on his way home from the bus stop in the afternoons. He's prone to coming home with sticks and rocks and handfuls of dandelions or sassafras leaves, which I think is great: the essence of kidhood.

I don't have a honeysuckle scent. Tried the Goutal (too green, not sweet enough, though I generally love the greenies) and Christian Celle's (chemical nightmare) and found them lacking. I think I need to investigate Honeysuckle Bird. It sounds like the feeling of my honeysuckle memories.