Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 41 Issue 10 • July 14-20, 2011
now in our 41th season

Red, White and Blue - Pt 2: Morrow’s Honeysuckle, Arrow-wood & Blueberry

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

Nantucket has always seemed like a patriotic place to me, which is a bit ironic since we always seem to be trying to be anything but the mainland, aka “America.”  Maybe it is the hometown feel of knowing your neighbors and seeing them at the grocery store or downtown.  I had no shortage of red, white and blue ideas for columns on the Fourth, so this week we’ll explore three more quintessential Nantucket flora that put the colors of the stars and stripes into our summer.  Each plant’s color exists for a reason, whether as an attractant or because it is full of antioxidants.


Morrow’s Honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii Gray): this enticing plant, currently seen all over the island with bright red berries, is an invasive exotic plant.  From the Invasive Plants of New England (IPANE) website we can trace the introduction of this species to America: “Lonicera morrowii was discovered on a trip by Dr. James Morrow in Japan from 1862 to 1864. The plants were sent to Asa Gray in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who consequently named the plant after its collector. Sometime after this, around 1875, the plant was introduced into cultivation. It is likely that the plant was directly introduced into New England through plantings.”

You can’t miss these plants as you drive around the island or walk the bike paths. I saw an especially beautiful berry laden one on the bike path near the rotary a couple of weeks ago, right next to a blooming arrow-wood tree- which is how I got the idea for this story. A friend told me her friend has always called these berries “butt berries” because they look like conjoined Siamese-twin-like bright red berries. I tried to take a clear picture of one of the many growing here at the field station so you could make your own mind. The paired flowers of Lonicera morrowii measure a half inch long and are usually white, fading to yellow with age. The flowers appear on this plant from late May to early June. The fruits are red spherical berries measuring a half inch in diameter, and, like the flowers, they are borne in pairs.

From the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health’s website on Morrow’s honeysuckle ( “Morrow’s honeysuckle is a multi-stemmed, upright, deciduous shrub that grows up to 7 feet tall. The leaves are opposite, round, 2-3 inch long and hairy underneath. Often it is one of the first shrubs to leaf out in the spring. The fragrant flowers are tubular, white to cream-colored, 3/4 inch in diameter and develop in the mid-spring. The abundant berries are 1/4 inch in diameter, ripen to orange or red in color, often persist throughout winter and occur on 1/2 inch pedicels. The bark is light brown and often pubescent on young stems. Several species of exotic bush honeysuckles occur and distinguishing individual species can be difficult. Morrow’s honeysuckle can often resemble Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), but Amur honeysuckle is taller (up to 10 feet), has larger leaves and nearly sessile berries. Morrow’s honeysuckle readily invades open woodlands, old fields and other disturbed sites. It can spread rapidly due to birds and mammals dispersing the seeds and can form a dense understory thicket which can restrict native plant growth and tree seedling establishment.“  If you look at the photo accompanying this article, you might be able to tell that the leaves are very soft looking or downy.
When I heard they had sessile berries, I had to do a double take-in biology and zoology, sessile means, “does not move,” as in an attached sessile barnacle.  As far as I knew, most berries don’t roam around on their own, so I had to look up the botanical meaning for sessile and that is “stalkless and attached directly at the base: sessile leaves” according to Okay, that’s better, I was thinking, no wonder it’s invasive! It is a pretty plant and hardy and the berries persist for a long time and the birds love them. The red berries are super obvious, and look yummy even to me and have very little nutritional value, so they keep birds coming back for more. It is a very clever and thorough strategy for a plant that wants to spread. In fact, the primary dispersal route is directly attributed to birds eating the seeds and then depositing them elsewhere.

You see Morrow’s honeysuckle along with some of its reprobate pals like the Tartarian honeysuckle, Japanese honeysuckle, and Bell’s honeysuckle (cross of Morrow’s and Tartarian) on the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources “Massachusetts Prohibited Plant List” (something everyone should check out in MA: Most of these are called “bush honeysuckle” and are on many “Most Wanted” lists for invasive plants (


Arrowwood: In the same family, Caprifoliaceae as the Morrow’s Honeysuckle (and many of our island native and non native plants) is arrow-wood , sometimes spelled all as one word, arrowwood. Although the flowers are dying out quickly, from mid-June to early July, the arrow-wood blooms were abundant around the island. Comprised of small to large shrubs (for Nantucket,  essentially small trees), these plants are from 3 to over 15 feet tall with opposite leaves and clusters of small, white flowers that are followed by fleshy, berry-like fruits. The fruit colors vary from red, yellow, blue or black. Flowering usually occurs each year from April to July depending on the latitude and species. Here they flower primarily in June and I normally see bluish fruits. The Viburnum family is pretty large. On Nantucket, the primary Viburnum spp. encountered is Viburnum dentatum named for the little teeth or ridges along the leaf.  It is listed as either Northern or Southern Arrowwood (depends on which botanical sheet you look at, may go back to some obscure Civil War issue) and it is a moisture loving plant that is very common on Nantucket and to me is one of the defining plants for the island. It is native to North America.  When you start looking for its distinct leaves and arrow-straight branches, you’ll begin to see it everywhere. The showy, beautiful white flowers can be seen as you drive or hike around the island; by early to mid July, most of those flowers have dropped. In the fall they have bright to dark blue berries that are really pretty and provide crucial nutrition to migrating birds. From the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower center site (based at the University of Texas-Austin) we learn that Viburnum dentatum L. or southern arrowwood (Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle Family) as a “6-8 ft. shrub, sometimes taller, with multiple, erect-arching stems in a loose, round habit. White, flat-topped flower clusters are followed by dark blue berries. Lustrous, dark-green foliage (shiny dark green above, paler below) turns yellow to wine-red in fall. A shrub with downy twigs, coarsely toothed leaves, and flat-topped clusters of small, white flowers; opposite leaves with coarse, regular teeth along the margin; blue-black fruits in flat clusters; dense, twiggy, suckering habit; flat clusters of small creamy white flowers.  Some botanists recognize two separate species for this highly variable plant, the other being northern Arrowwood (V. recognitum) with smooth twigs.”  So they separate the southern and northern variety based on twig covering.

The name arrow-wood comes from the long, straight branches, which were used for arrow shafts. Even I can identify this plant most of the time out in the field just by looking at its very straight branches. You’ll see this plant almost everywhere from Squam Farm to the Nantucket Field Station off Polpis Road to Sanford Farm. Natives used the wood from the tree to make arrows for hunting. They also used the inner bark as a tobacco substitute. Viburnums are great ornamental landscape plants and wonderful natives. The fruit attracts most fruit-eating birds, including bluebirds, brown thrashers, cedar waxwings, gray catbirds, robins, and thrushes. And now we have our own Nantucket named cultivar which is one of the newest cultivars from the U.S. National Arboretum. Viburnum 'Nantucket' (NA 69852; PI 651840): “'Nantucket' was released in 2008 from a cross made in 1988 by the late Donald Egolf of V. 'Eskimo' × V. macrocephalum f. keteleeri. The female parent, 'Eskimo', was derived from open-pollinated seed from the cross [(V. carlesii × V. × carlcephalum) × V. utile]. The male parent came from wild-collected seed from Zhejiang Province, China, collected in 1980 by T. Dudley. 'Nantucket' is the 20th viburnum cultivar released from the National Arboretum’s shrub breeding program. It was selected for its large, mildly fragrant, abundant, branched white inflorescences that cover the plant in spring; dark semi-evergreen narrow leaves; and upright relatively compact growth habit. Press release at 


Blueberry: For many islanders, the blueberry is one of the most special treats to be found on island. Nantucket has both high and low bush blueberries galore and they can be found bordering wetlands and even on higher ground scattered around the island. Good “blueberrying” spots are a closely guarded secret and people are divided as to whether the high or low bush blueberries are tastier.  From the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Services’ National Plant Center ( we learn that highbush blueberry or Vaccinium corymbosum L. is the king of nicknames with the following alternate names listed: Northern highbush blueberry, southeastern highbush blueberry, Maryland highbush blueberry, black highbush blueberry, American blueberry, New Jersey blueberry, rabbit-eye blueberry, swamp blueberry, tall huckleberry, mayberry, and whortleberry (the last term refers to bilberries not blueberries which proves the federal government is not into 16th century herbalist literature). Blueberries have one of the highest concentrations of iron of the temperate fruits. Ideal soil for cultivation is moist, high in organic matter, highly acidic (4.5-5.5), and well-drained (well three out of four isn’t too bad; Nantucket has all of this except for high organic matter content). The plants grow in full sun to partial shade, but those in open sites produce more flowers and have brighter fall foliage color.

Highbush blueberry is a native to North America and it is an upright, 6-12 feet tall, crown-forming shrub. The common name refers to the relatively tall stature of these plants. Twigs are yellow-green (reddish in winter) and covered with small wart-like dots. Leaves are deciduous, alternate, simple, elliptic or ovate, 1 to 3½ inches long and slightly waxy above with pubescence (hairs) at least on the veins beneath. The white or pink-tinged flowers are small and urn-shaped (I think they look bell shaped) with 5 petals, and occur 8 to 10 per cluster. For Nantucket and parts of New England flowering occurs in late April through May and into June; fruiting occurs late June through October, about 62 days after flowering. Fruits are blue-black berries with many seeds. In the PLANTS database, many plants known as “highbush” blueberries are actually a group of interrelated species. Hybrids are often used in commercial fruit production. Although widespread in eastern North America, the highbush blueberry has been introduced outside of its natural range for commercial berry production. The most common native habitat is in moist or wet peat of moderate to high acidity – in and around marshes, swamps, lakes and flood-prone areas. V. corymbosum also occurs in drier areas such as dunes and barrier beaches, rocky hillsides, oak woods, and pinewoods. V. corymbosum is the major blueberry-producing species in commerce. More than 50 cultivars have been developed, primarily for commercially valuable fruit characteristics and seasonality. “Vaccinium” is Latin for blueberry and “corymbosum” is Latin for the “uppermost point.”  High bush blueberries are in the family Ericaceae, or Heath family.

From, “Songbirds which feed heavily on the fruits of highbush blueberry include the scarlet tanager, eastern bluebird, scrub jay, rufous-sided towhee, gray catbird, northern mockingbird, brown thrasher, northern cardinal, and the American robin and several other thrushes.” Blueberries are a good source of vitamin C and natural sugars and contain moderate amounts of trace minerals and other vitamins.  One-half cup of berries contains 41 calories, 1.96 grams of dietary fiber, and 9.6 mg of vitamin C. Highbush blueberry fruit was eaten by Native Americans and their leaves and flowers were used for various medicinal purposes with the fruit also being used as a dye.  Highbush blueberry is an extremely important agricultural crop and is extensively cultivated in New Jersey, Michigan, North Carolina, and Washington and to a lesser extent in Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. In 1989, there were over 100,000 acres (40,000 ha) in commercial highbush blueberry production in North America.  Berry yields in commercial fields often average 2 to 2.5 tons per acre.  Since the 1920s, more than 50 highbush cultivars have been developed. 

If you can believe it, our low-bush blueberries are even sweeter and are ripe and ready for picking now in many secret spots around the island. Vaccinium angustifolium (the low-bush blueberry) is widely found around the island in wetlands and even in the moors and along many paths in our “hidden forests.”  These bushes are much lower to the ground as the name implies and they only get to be about two feet tall. This species flowers from April to June, and its berries ripen to a deep blue with white flesh.  I mentioned above the significance of colors in our flora today, and the blueberry (both high and low) is an excellent example of that as the blue color in blueberries indicates they have high concentrations of anthocyanins which are powerful antioxidants that break down cell-damaging free radicals. In fact, blueberries are one of the “super foods.”  providing a significant amount of protection for various forms of cancer. Anthocyanins are present in black raspberries, cranberries, grapes and many other berries in both the Vaccinium and Rubus species and scientists are researching their use as tools in the treatment of diabetes, aging and neurological diseases, inflammation, and bacterial infections. If you are lucky enough to have a home-made and hand-picked pie here on island, you don’t even need to be convinced of the healthy properties of these fruits. There is nothing sweeter or more fun than finding blueberries along the walking trails of Nantucket, so get out there and track down your own patch of these beauties.


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