Driving back and forth for the past couple of weeks on the freeway that runs north-south on the western side of Austin where I live, I couldn’t help but notice a string of blossoming redbud trees along the road’s eastern fringe. (Do I get extra points for squeezing all four of the cardinal directions into that sentence?) Color words are notoriously subjective, so I’ll let those of you who aren’t familiar with this tree, Cercis canadensis, know that its buds and blossoms are actually a pinkish lavender, not red.

In any case, the other day, before the trees’ blooms could fade, I finally grabbed my heavy camera bag and drove to a side street, parked, and walked over to the redbuds to try to get some good pictures of them. To my happy surprise, in the underbrush beneath one of the trees I discovered a native plant that isn’t rare but that I’ve seldom come across in the wild in Austin, Lonicera sempervirens. Spanish calls the vines in this genus madreselva, from madre, the cognate of native English mother, and selva ‘woods, forest’ (compare the borrowed English adjective sylvan ‘pertaining to the forest’). Joan Corominas explained the origin of the poetic  Spanish name, first attested in the year 982: this ‘mother of the forest,’ he noted, like a human mother “con sus ramos sarmentosos abraza otras plantas,” which is to say that with its twining shoots it embraces other plants.

The English word for the members of the genus Lonicera is etymologically unrelated to the Spanish term, but it also rests on a maternal metaphor. English says honeysuckle, which conjures up the image of a mother nursing her baby in a way that’s as sweet as honey. The plant that I found in Austin, known colloquially by the colorful name coral honeysuckle, doesn’t have the intoxicatingly sweet fragrance of the white-flowered Japanese honeysuckle that has taken over in many parts of the United States. Nevertheless, I think you’ll agree that the native species, producing elongated buds and flowers that with their saturated color truly live up to the name redbud, presents a much more striking appearance than the pale invasive, especially when played off against the blossoms of the (misleadingly named) tree and the (accurately described) blue sky above them.

Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) beneath a blossoming redbud tree (Cercis canadensis)

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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