Question: I have a dogwood tree that is declining but still has some branches that flower and then blaze up with red leaves. I hate to cut it down; it's kind of like an old bird dog. How long do you think it might hang on?
Answer: Oh, please, please don't pull the plug. On my trip to China, I saw many venerable trees with their limbs propped up; often they were the most striking and most photographed specimens. Dogwoods have very hard wood (you should read about their importance in the early textile industry) and can hang on for years, making a wonderful sounding board for woodpeckers. Unless this tree is going to land on your dog's kennel if it topples, why not make it a natural arbor for another lovely native plant, woodbine, Lonicera sempervirens?
Woodbine, or trumpet honeysuckle, is our own, non-aggressive answer to that imported invader, L. japonica. It loves to climb into the sunlight ,so it will scamper up your dogwood and brighten your landscape all spring and summer with bright-red tubular flowers. Guess what else you'll have - that's right, hummingbirds and butterflies who will feed on the sweet nectar that collects in the bottom of that fused corolla tube (that's a little botanical talk, perfectly acceptable in a family newspaper). Just like with the Asian invader, you can pluck these flowers, gently pull them apart, and let that drop of sweetness fall on your tongue. I'm shocked at the number of children who don't know how to get nectar from honeysuckle - you can help this time-honored and time-consuming alternative to television alive in your neighborhood after your woodbine gets established.
The leaves of this honeysuckle species have an unusual botanical feature - those growing right below the flowers encircle the stem almost like a doily under a bonbon. Instead of just another plain old Crayola green, the leaves are a lovely blue-gray. After the flowers fade, bright red berries take their place and hang on until song birds harvest them over the winter.
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Before you run to your favorite nursery with your pocketbook open, let me add this caveat. Many woodbines are prey to powdery mildew when they grow in our humid, hot climate. Over the years, eagle-eyed nurserymen have selected seedlings that show resistance to this fungal disease and it will certainly be worth your time to choose an improved cultivar. This beautiful vine also comes in a soft yellow color, which although attractive, pales when compared to the original. L. sempervirens, in my opinion, but I live in a house that needs paint, and I like gardenia- based perfumes, so follow your own taste.
For you readers who don't have a dying tree, this vine quickly covers a chicken wire frame attached to a masonry wall or a more refined trellis. You can take advantage of its non-aggressive nature and even let it scramble over large azaleas or other shrubs. To keep it thick and lush when growing on a support, take this native in hand and give it a good haircut every few years or so or the flowers will all move to the top, otherwise go native yourself and teach your grandchildren how to harvest those tiny drops of ambrosia.
(P.S. -- Always tell children to only sample outdoor plants when a grownup is there to give them the okay.)
Amanda McNulty is a Clemson Extension agent in Sumter County. She will answer your gardening questions in this twice-monthly column. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org