At the moment, the North Texas area is truly in the middle of spring. We’re past any reasonable chance of a freeze (although the area reached just short of freezing 39 years ago today, so it could happen), with about three weeks to a month before things start to get torrid. (Of course, as mentioned last year, it’s not truly summer until you can’t walk into a grocery store anywhere in the state without at least four old ladies accosting you to tell you “It’s HOT,” as if we always get snow flurries and sleet on the Fourth of July. Last year, I went grocery shopping early, because otherwise the place sounded like a pterosaur rookery.) When we aren’t being dragged to Oz by tornadoes (and the current count of last week’s April Madness was 17 in the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area), the wind is mild, the sun tolerable, and the nights incredible. The evening air this time of the year makes the worst summers worthwhile, because it’s cool enough to get active while warm enough to leave the jackets and sweaters at home.
Right now, my best friend and I are getting particular mileage from those evenings, and I mean that literally. He bought a new Harley last summer, and spends the dusk and evening exploring exactly how far and how fast his monster machine will take him before he resigns himself to having to go home so he can get up for work in the morning. I’m no different, even if I’m on a mountain bike instead of a motorcycle. Back roads and bare paths, spooking armadillos and the occasional great horned owl because they didn’t hear me until we were close enough to touch…yeah, it’s that time of the year.
It’s during these perambulations that my best friend and I come into contact with one of North Texas’s most hidden-in-plain-sight invasive plants, usually as we’re buzzing right past. The air’s already clean, and then a quick whiff of fresh sweetness, and then it’s gone like a kiss from an ex-girlfriend. It’s Japanese honeysuckle season.
In all of my travels, the only other invasive plant I’ve come across that inspires as mixed a set of emotions as Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) in Texas is Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) in Oregon. In areas outside of Portland, Himalayan blackberry is an absolute menace once it’s established. It grows in huge clumps as much as eight meters tall. The canes are bandsaw blades with chlorophyll, and moving through a patch with anything other than plate mail is a great way to see how much blood the human body can lose at once. The plant gets established through seeds, cane tips, and runners from rhizomes, and extensive application of fire just encourages it. Gardeners and farmers spit and curse upon mention of the name, because clearing an established stand just means that the space is clear for a few birds to leave fresh seeds with their droppings and start the cycle again.
What makes it rough is that while the whole plant is a nightmare, the blackberries themselves are absolute heaven. At one point in the summer of 1996, my ex-wife and I stood at one spot in Washington State, right along the Columbia River, and picked berries for a solid hour without moving our feet except to get new containers. For most Portlanders, the Himalayan blackberry is becoming the New Zealand brushtail possum of local flora: yes, it’s wiped out whenever encountered, but summers also aren’t the same any more without local restaurants offering blackberry margaritas.
That’s about the situation with Japanese honeysuckle out here. Just whisper the name to gardeners, and wait for the shrieks. I understand that Debbi Middleton killed a big stand of the stuff all by herself, wielding a Garden Weasel like a naginata, in a classic battle that begs to be recreated by Peter Jackson. I wouldn’t be surprised if she mounted the tuber over her fireplace with the killing strike turned out toward the couch, so she could gaze upon it and snicker. When members of local garden groups get together to talk about the latest infestation, and they start mumbling “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit,” they aren’t kidding.
I understand. I sympathize. I join in with their justifiable wars against hackberry, greenbriar, and cottonwood seedlings. It’s just that I look at a clump like the one above, and remember how many times I’ve nearly been knocked off my bike in an attempt to stop and savor for a few seconds. Most people need a gallon of coffee to wake up in the morning. All I need is a bicycle, a bit of Hawkwind or Yavin 4 in the earbuds, and that insane scent in my nostrils to get me going. And so it goes.