Southern Honeysuckle

Lonicera subspicata

small cream colored flowers on branches
Rios trailhead | May 2008

Southern honeysuckle (Lonicera subspicata) is a woody vine that grows up through sturdier plants, leaning on them for support. The cream-colored flowers are small but numerous, and they are followed by bright orange or red berries.

Southern Honeysuckle is both native and restricted to Southern California and Baja California. It is a chaparral plant that occasionally finds a home in sage scrub or riparian vegetations.

Native Americans bundled the long twigs and branches into brushes and brooms.

Other Common Names:

San Diego honeysuckle; chaparral honeysuckle, Santa Barbara honeysuckle

Description 2,4,26,59

Southern honeysuckle is a woody, perennial vine that grows up through shrubs in the chaparral and sage scrub. It is evergreen or semi-deciduous. Arching, reddish stems may be up to eight feet (2.5 m) in length, and they gain altitude by leaning and sprawling rather than twining or clasping. Leaves are elliptic to ovate; their width is more than half the length. Older leaves may be up to 1.75″ (4.5 cm) long. The upper surface is dark green, somewhat glossy; the lower surface is paler. The leaf surface is often undulate, and margins are smooth, sometimes rolled under, especially during periods of drought. Leaves have short petioles and occur in pairs on opposite sides of the stem.

Flowers are born on short spikes from tips of branches. There are several flowers at discrete nodes; flowers of one node open on different days but stay open for several days. The small calyx is green and five-lobed. Flowers are bisexual, cream-colored, sometimes tinged with pink. The corolla is bilaterally symmetrical, tubular with two lips; the upper lip is four-lobed and rolls upward and backward; the lower lip curls down. The five stamens have white filaments and bright yellow anthers and protrude from the corolla. There is one pistil; the style and stigma are often exserted beyond the anthers. The ovary is inferior. Flowers have been described as very fragrant11,23 or not fragrant at all.4 In our plants, the fragrance is subtle, if not imaginary.  Flowers appear primarily in April and May and may continue into July.1

The attractive, translucent, spherical berries are orange or red, about 1/4 – 1/3 inch across (6-8 mm). Each berry contains one to five small seeds. Although the petals drop soon after fertilization, the calyx persists, sitting on the top of the berry-like a small crown.

tiny red berries on branch

Holmwood Canyon | October 2010

cream colored flower on branch

Santa Carina trailhead | May 2015

Red branch with green leaves stemming from it

Santa Carina trailhead | May 2015

Distribution 7,89

Southern honeysuckle is native to the western slopes of central and southern California and Baja California. It is found most often in chaparral below 6000 feet but occurs also in woodlands, sage scrub and riparian areas.

It is common in the Reserve. Good places to find southern honeysuckle include Holmwood Canyon (Central Basin) and East Basin along the slope midway between Santa Carina and Santa Helena trailheads.

Classification 11,44

Southern honeysuckle is a dicot angiosperm in the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae). This is a rather small family of about 250 species restricted to northern temperate regions. Recent taxonomic changes have caused one southern California botanist to claim this is “one of the most confusing families I have encountered.”44 Members of the honeysuckle family characteristically have flowers with bilateral symmetry, tubular corollas with five lobes, five stamens and an inferior ovary that becomes a juicy berry. Leaves are opposite. The genus Lonicera, which includes the ornamental honeysuckles, is the best-known genus in this family.

In California, we have only two genera. The honeysuckles are distinguished from the Snowberries (Symphoricarpos) primarily by their bilaterally symmetrical flowers. Although there are 10 species of honeysuckle growing wild in California, only L. subspicata is reported from the Reserve. Of the two varieties currently recognized in California, ours is var. denudata, which is distinguished from var. subspicata by its relatively broad leaves.

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
Orange circles

Santa Helena trailhead | August 2010

small cream colored flowers on branches

Holmwood Canyon | May 2010

small cream colored flowers on branches

Santa Carina trailhead | April 2014


Surprisingly, there is virtually no direct information about the ecology of southern honeysuckle. It is suggested that the flower is designed for butterfly pollination.4 Southern honeysuckle is recommended for wildlife gardens168,173 so one might presume that birds and mammals are attracted by the colorful berries and are an important seed dispersal mechanism.

bush on trail with small cream colored flowers on branches

Santa Carina trailhead | April 2010

small cream colored flowers on branches

Santa Carina trailhead | April 2015

cluster of small cream and pink colored flowers on branches

Santa Carina trailhead | April 2015

Human Uses  

Kumeyaay used southern honeysuckle for cordage and weaving and for the treatment of colds and flu.15

The Chumash Indians, who lived around Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands, lumped together southern honeysuckle and Nuttall’s snowberry (Symphoricarpos mollis; not found in the Reserve). They called the two plants “tu'” which meant “ear” and referred to the leaves which are the size and shape of a mouse’s ear. Bundles of leafy twigs and branches were used as brooms or brushes for a variety of purposes.15

Although the Theodore Paine Foundation lists honeysuckle as having edible berries,173  we have not been able to find a specific record of them being eaten by humans.

red berries on branch

Santa Carina trailhead | August 2013

small cream colored flowers on branches

Santa Carina trailhead | May 2015

bush with small cream colored flowers on branches

Holmwood Canyon | May 2010

Interesting Facts 22,59

Although we have not (yet) found any on Reserve plants, southern honeysuckle is host to a bud gall inducer – a midge, a small insect that is in the same insect order as the mosquito and the fruit fly. Each insect stimulates a unique plant growth (the gall) around its eggs or larvae. The galls provide food and shelter for the developing midge larvae which chew their way out when they are ready to become adults.

The midge galls on the southern honeysuckle resemble the bud galls on the arroyo willow. An unidentified gall, perhaps induced by a different insect, looks more like an inflated green latex glove.26

bush with small cream colored flowers on branches

Santa Carina trailhead | May 2009

small cream colored flowers on branches

Santa Carina trailhead | April 2105

small cream colored flowers on branches

Santa Carina trailhead | April 2015

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