Family Connections

by Alec McCarter – April 2003


(Reprinted from the April 2003 edition of the Finnerty Gardens newsletter)


The family Capricifoliaceae contains some of our most loved plants, and a surprising number of them can be found in our own gardens.


One that is not easy to grow out of its environment is its smallest member, from northern latitudes throughout Asia and North America – the dainty, lovely Twin-flower, Linnaea borealis.  Its wiry, rooted stems sprawl and twine through thick, moist mossy coverings on rocks.  At intervals along the stems, short perpendicular stalks support twin identical, downward facing trumpets of clearest pink.  The tiny flowers and leaves are in perfect scale with one another.  I have admired it in Nova Scotia at the edge of the forest near the ocean, and on the moss covering an old stone foundation where once a log cabin clung to the hillside near Dawson City in Yukon.  Sometimes it can be found growing at the edge of a clearing in the forest, then thick colonies spread over the ground where the light and moisture permit.  To be truly appreciated it has to be seen close up – one should lie down to bury one’s face in it – then the heady scent is so enchanting that it is unforgettable, but I am at a loss to compare this scent with any other.


The story that Carolus Linnaeus, father of Taxonomy, named Linnaea after himself is not true. The Linnaean society provides a quote from his Species Plantarum published in 1753:  “Linnaea was named by the celebrated Gronovius and is a plant of Lapland, lowly, insignificant and disregarded, flowering but for a brief space – from Linnaeus who resembles it.”  He must have been a bit depressed when he wrote that.


Almost as unforgettable is the powerful, sweet scent of common Honeysuckle, that utilitarian climber that could cover an outhouse in a single summer, and hide it from at least two of the five human senses.  Utilitarian because it hid the little wooden, outdoor loos or privies and their occupant from sight, and the perfume of the flowers modified, if not paralysed olfactory nerve endings.  These reminiscences are of long ago summer stays in Gibson’s Landing before there was indoor plumbing.  I remember the hum of bees foraging for nectar among the honeysuckle’s flowers. Rufus hummingbirds were also powerfully attracted.  Those of us teenagers who wore the bright chrome-yellow, terry cloth T-shirts that were all the rage at that time, approached those honeysuckled retreats with a sense of necessity, but also some timidity because the fiercely inquisitive, fearless small creatures would fly within inches of our bright shirts, as if to check for the presence of a gold mine of nectar. Inches – we didn’t have centimeters back then.  Sometimes there are more reasons to remember a plant than just its garden worthiness.


We have several representatives of the C. family in our own garden, as probably, do you.  One that is in bloom now is Viburnum x bodnantense, ‘Dawn’ or ‘Pink Dawn’.  It is a shrub of many straight trunks (hence a vernacular name Arrowwood) along the fence on the northern side of the garden making a hedge about 2 metres high and less than half of that wide.  Through the summer, it is green and dense, from top to bottom and end to end – a length of nearly twenty feet.  In October, the first clusters of pink flowers appear, replacing the falling leaves.  Now, in mid-January, the hundreds of pink tufts at the ends of all the otherwise bare branches are a delight to see. They are sweetly scented as of almonds.  We first became aware of this shrub in Doris Page’s garden where she grew not only it, but also its parents, V. farreri and V. grandiflorum.  Her shrubs were much higher than ours – which are trimmed.  Very unfortunately, V. bodnantense is a host for the fungus that causes sudden oak death, Phytophthora ramorum.  Some other hosts are Arbutus menziesii, Rhododendrons, Vaccinium ovatum (Evergreen huckleberry).  Bad news.


Close to the eastern end of this hedge, another member of the Capricifoliaceae, Viburnum tinus, also known as Laurus tinus, is slowly enlarging its space.  This is the one with variegated leaves. It is a docile plant, not particularly noticeable, which has yet to make its mark in the world because it is in competition with the hedge and Arbutus unedo.


As an aside, the evergreen ‘strawberry tree’ is not a member of the honeysuckle family but of the Ericacea, bearing flowers and fruit at the same time.  The flowers are globe shaped, white, and numerous – the berries are round, about 1.5 cm in diameter, scarlet when ripe, looking something like strawberries hence the vernacular name, edible but disappointing in having a bland taste and granular texture.  I suspect that the Arbutus might one-day falter, as it did before in a deep freeze and the good qualities of the Viburnum might then prevail.  If you are not familiar with Arbutus unedo, you will find one in the parking lot of McCall’s and CompuSmart at Johnson and Vancouver streets.


At another place in the garden the Chinese or Winter honeysuckle lemon-scents the air from small, creamy-white blossoms scattered along bare branches.  They began to appear in December and now are numerous but not conspicuously so.  The sinuous branches tend to support one another, but it is not a climber in the true sense of the word. I understand that its leaves when crushed emit a lemon scent – but I shall have to wait until next summer to test this.  Although we have had the shrub for many years, I never thought to smell the leaves.


And still another member of the family is Abelia grandiflora – an evergreen or semideciduous shrub of many slender stems and branches reaching a height of 1.5 to 2 metres.  It is a beauty for most of the year that blooms in late summer with small white tubular or flaring trumpets, in terminal tufts from every branch.  Although most of the flowers are white, some are tinged with pink.  Each flower has at its base 4 to 5 bronze-coloured sepals, radially arranged, which are persistent.  The effect after the flowers have gone, is that the plant is covered with tufts of pink, making it appear still to be in flower.  It was the persistence of these sepals through the winter that attracted me to the plant in the first place.  The shiny green leaves that remain throughout the year make for a remarkable plant as beautiful in the landscape at a distance as it is close up. Grandiflora is a hybrid.  It could be that our plant is Abelia “Edward Goucher.”  The difference is that the latter has ‘bumpy leaves’ whereas those of grandiflora are smooth.


Leycesteria formosa, the Himalayan honeysuckle grows in our garden close to the winter honeysuckle, and in several other places to which it has spread.  The common name ‘Grandmother’s Curls’ or another ‘Pheasant Berry’, are descriptive.  The large arrow-shaped leaves hang from hollow green branches from sturdy, hollow, green stems.  In bloom, prominent red-purple bracts separate hanging clusters of white, bell-shaped flowers.  Later, dark purple berries are formed.  They stain the pavement to which they fall, and of course, the hands that pick them.


Four other members of the honeysuckle family are Kolkwitzia amabilis, Weigela, Snow Berry (Symphoricarpus albus) and Sambucus.  We have not grown Beauty bush nor Weigela in our garden here – not that they are not superb, but we reached our limit some time ago.  Both are of the honeysuckle family, and both grow superbly well with easy culture and, for good reason, are very popular in Canadian gardens from coast to coast.  There are many cultivars of each available in the nursery trade – so many that a separate discussion of them would be appropriate.


Symphorocarpus albus, the snowberry is a familiar sight to those of us who live in coastal British Columbia.  Locally, a drive around the Ring road at the University of Victoria will allow them to be seen without getting out of one’s car.  Another place is on the north slope of Mount Tolmie where the municipality of Saanich has planted native species.  Perhaps it will be seen in Victoria’s gardens more frequently, not as a weed but as a treasured native plant – particularly so should watering restrictions be applied and xeriscaping gain in popularity.  And lastly there is the elder bush, Sambucus.  We grew one of its varieties in our garden in Ontario.  It is attractive in leaf, flower and berries.  Depending on the species, the berries can be red, blue or black.  The flowers have been used to flavour white wines, while the ripe berries make very good jam, jelly and wine, as we know from personal experience of our own plant.  The Pacific elderberry, Sambucus cerulea is edible when ripe, but is very bitter.  Apparently cooking improves the taste of the ripe berries.  Green, unripe berries can be mildly toxic and should not be eaten.


The name Capricifolium means ‘Goat leaf’.  I see nothing goatly about the plants described here.  I wonder if the decisions that botanists made to include these so widely different plants in one family involved ‘caprice’ or ‘capriciousness’? It would be interesting to know.