Sunday, June 11, 2006
I’ve been waiting for this day since I looked ahead at the list of flowers I could feature in June, because I have many good associations with honeysuckle.
When I was young, growing up in a tract house in Van Nuys, California, there was a honeysuckle bush outside my bedroom window, or at least that’s what we called it (it was actually a shrimp plant). But just as with the honeysuckle, you could pull out the long stamen and find a drop of sweetness at the end.
The last time I visited Wales, in 1995, I found myself one evening as dusk was falling, wandering down a lane, surrounded by hedgerows of honeysuckle. The scent was intoxicating. I later wrote a poem about this experience using a medieval Welsh poetic form, the toddaid, which is a quatrain stanza which alternates between ten-syllable and nine-syllable lines. A syllable toward the end of the first line cross-rhymes into the middle of the second and the same effect is reproduced in lines three and four. The end syllables of lines two and four rhyme with each other.
After all day on the bus I arrive
In Brecon at dusk and set out
Armed with directions to the hostel
My destination, along a walking route.
One and three quarter miles by bridle trail
Baffled by stiles and signs, I turn back
Halfway there, discouraged, pelted by rain
I rest, sheltered by a haystack.
Brecon vanishes in a mist of white.
Somehow I've missed the turn and criss-cross
On turd-dotted tracks, trotting on steep slopes
Like the sheep whose paths I tread. I'm lost.
Back down the road at a hospital, nurses
Call the hostel; the path to them is plain:
"Go up the hill, past the Leisure Center,
Then turn right and follow Maggie's Lane."
There is no sign, it's just a country road
Edged by hedgerows, sweet with the perfume
Of honeysuckle; empty and quiet
In the twilight and the gathering gloom.
"An old gypsy woman, Maggie, stayed there
In her caravan," one nurse tells me,
"Every summer, many years ago."
Her eyes glow, alight with memory.
Its peace enfolds me and I drift along
Like a skiff on a river of rain,
No longer worried about my goal
For my soul is soothed by Maggie's Lane.
Later I learn this was an ancient path
For pilgrims to Saint Eluned's well
Drawn down its length at Lammas every year
To dance and be healed by the saint's spell.
The road, a black ribbon, unfurls before
My feet, gently curling to the right.
Far off in the dark shadows of the trees
I see the glow of welcoming lights.
Jeanne Rose says you can make a syrup of the flowers which is good for respiratory disorders and asthma. Its leaves infused in oil ease cramps and nervousness. And the bark can be made into a lotion for itchy skin and skin eruptions, or as a gargle for a sore throat. She provides a recipe for honeysuckle bark wrinkle cream: simmer 1 oz of honeysuckle bark in 4 oz olive oil in a nonmetal pan over a water bath for 30 minutes. Then strain, cool and use on dry or wrinkly skin. Gerard, the Elizabethan physician, in his Herbal recommends putting the flowers into oil and letting it sit in the sun, thus creating an infused oil.
Honeysuckle in the language of flowers means chains or bonds of love, because of the way it twines. In Shakespeare’s time the honeysuckle was called woodbine.; in Milton’s time, eglantine. The French name for it translates as goat leaf, which is also part of its Latin name: Lonicera caprifolium. Apparently it is a favorite food for goats.
And then there’s that great song: Honeysuckle Rose, which was written by Fats Waller.
My favorite version is the sexy, breathy rendition done by Anita O’Day.
And Marie de France wrote a romantic poem title Chevrefeuille, in which the love of Tristan and Iseult is compared to the way the honeysuckle twines around the hazel. Here’s a PDF version of that lay with annotations:
I am in luck because I know where the honeysuckle grows in my neighborhood, along the fence of a vacant lot which has been turned into a lush paradise by the neighbors so I will be able to enjoy both the scent and the sweetness today. May your day be sweet.
Color print of Chevrefeuille by Nicolais Francois Regnault published 1774-1780