Shrub to c. 5 m tall, often smaller. Branches hollow; twigs with a glaucous bloom and appressed and sometimes glandular hairs. Leaf ovate to lanceolate, 4–13 × 2–6 cm, base cuneate to subcordate, tip long-pointed, margin entire to dentate, both surfaces rich green and glabrescent or with sparse, appressed hairs; petiole 5–15 mm long. Inflorescence June–September, terminal or axillary; peduncle 6–30 mm; 1–10 whorls of flowers are each composed of 2 opposite, sessile, 3-flowered cymes subtended by 14 crimson to purple (less often greenish) bracts, the largest pair up to 25 mm long. Ovary oblong, 3–4 mm, dense with glandular hairs. Calyx shortly fused at the base, sometimes to halfway, its lobes lanceolate to linear, sometimes deltoid, 1–9 mm long. Corolla white to pink, rarely reddish-purple, funnel-shaped, 12–18 mm long, pubescent outside, its lobes orbicular to ovate, c. 5 mm. Stamens slightly shorter than the corolla. Style glabrous, slightly longer than the corolla. Berry red turning blackish-purple, ovoid to subglobose, 5–7 mm wide, ripening September–October. (Flora of China 2021).
Distribution Bhutan Myanmar In the far north of the country China Guizhou, Sichuan, Xizang, Yunnan India In the Himalaya Nepal Pakistan In the easternmost Himalaya
Habitat Forests, forest margins and scrub, to 3500 m asl.
USDA Hardiness Zone 7
RHS Hardiness Rating H5
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
The most widespread, robust and showy of the Himalayan Leycesteria, L. formosa was the first to be described and introduced to cultivation in the UK, by Nathaniel Wallich in 1824 (Bean 1981); the specific name means ‘beautiful’ in Latin and has nothing to do with Taiwan, where this plant is not native, though the mis-spelling ‘formosana’ (‘from Taiwan’) is occasionally encountered. This is a variable plant, but forms whose white or blush flowers contrast magnificently with rich crimson bracts have long been selected for garden use. As the profusion of vernacular names suggests, it has become a familiar plant in cultivation, at least when the climate is oceanic and winters are mild; it is very easy to raise from seed and was planted as a pheasant cover, since pheasants are very fond of the berries (Bean 1981). Some forms bear quite sweet fruit but in others the berries are bitter, and are possibly toxic (Plants for a Future 2021). Flowers are borne on the current season’s growth and, as the glaucous bloom is brightest on new growths, plants can be managed by annual coppicing (Edwards & Marshall 2019); this is probably best done in spring after the risk of severe frost is over, or else only the oldest stems can be removed according to taste. The stems collapse and die anyway after two to five years, and, in common with the rest of the genus, individual plants are not particularly long-lived. In the low light-levels of north-west Europe the floral bracts colour most richly in full sun (Bean 1981), though self-sown plants can grow happily in dense woodland shade.
Leycesteria formosa is not hardy in much of continental Europe, and as a montane species is not adapted to a Mediterranean climate. It succeeds in New York City and in Cincinnati (Dave’s Garden 2021), and also in California and Oregon, but it needs regular watering through the west coast’s short summer drought (Oregon State University 2021); in British Columbia a cold winter can cut plants to the base (Times Colonist 2021). The assessment in (Dave’s Garden) that it is hardy to US Climate Zone 4 certainly seems over-optimistic.
The thick, hollow stems, green with a bluish bloom, may bring to mind that thug among hardy plants, Japanese Knotweed Fallopia japonica; the fruit, which are palatable to birds and germinate readily in temperate climates, do make Leycesteria formosa a potentially invasive species. It is naturalised across the UK and Ireland, as far north as Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland 2021). However, because it does not sucker and because plants seldom persist for very long, it is not yet assessed as a significant environmental problem.
Leycesteria formosa was introduced to Australia in 1855 (Weeds Australia 2021), and since the 1980s in Victoria, the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, western Tasmania and in South Australia around Adelaide, it has begun to form dense bird-sown thickets which can shade out native plants. It is also a common and potential troublesome garden escape in New Zealand (Wildflowers and Weeds 2021).
Toy flutes and trumpets are made from the hollow stems in India (Acharya & Mukherjee 2017); this is also the origin of the English vernacular name ‘Whistle Stick’. Cut in mid-late summer when the green stems are still flexible but not inclined to snap, an alternative use is as makeshift ramrods, useful for cleaning covered bends in drainage pipes and guttering (T. Christian pers. comm. 2021).
The height of the Himalayan Honeysuckle’s popularity as a garden plant seems to have been in Victorian times, but recently several clones have been selected for their especially brilliant bracts. There are also some yellow-leaved sports, though the contrast of greeny-yellow with the crimson and white of the flowers is perhaps not for the faint-hearted. A variety, var. stenosepala, described by Alfred Redher with smaller or narrower bracts, is recognised as a distinct form by the Royal Horticultural Society’s nomenclature (Royal Horticultural Society 2021), though not by the Flora of China or Plants of the World Online. Other minor variants include ‘Rosea’, with pink rather than white flowers, listed by Michael Dirr (Dirr 2009) but perhaps not a valid name, and a ‘brown-stemmed’ clone advertised by Fields of Bloom, Tipperary (Royal Horticultural Society 2006). ‘Golden Pheasant’, included in the Plant Finder as an unchecked name (Royal Horticultural Society 2006) almost certainly represented confusion with the yellow-flowered Leycesteria crocothyrsos.
A clone with greeny-yellow foliage, distributed by (Plantago). It may represent the same mutation as ‘Notbruce’ and ‘Linda’.
Another clone with yellowish-green foliage. The leaves flush with a mottling of (red) away from the veins.
A selection with yellowish leaves, whose tips remain reddish; the shoots are also red. Selected by Charles Carr at Hillier Nurseries in 2015 (Hillier Nurseries 2021).
Synonyms / alternative names
Leycesteria formosa GOLDEN LANTERNS®
A golden-leaved sport selected by Bruce Barber in Essex (UK) before 2003. The leaves flush reddish and mature to greeny-yellow, but can bleach in strong sunlight (Hatch 2021–2022). The inflorescence is typical of the best selected forms – white bells under crimson bracts.
‘Gold Leaf’, sold by Notcutts from 2002 (Dirr 2009), may represent the same clone.
A selection with vivid purple floral bracts, available in Europe by 1999 (Hatch 2021–2022). It was planted in the ELTE Botanical Garden in Budapest in 2000 (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2021) and is still listed on that garden’s catalogue as hosted online by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s multisite search function in 2021, though winters in Hungary are too cold for Leycesteria formosa to be traditionally expected to survive without protection outdoors.
A selection with rich red floral bracts, available by 2001 from the former Here and Now Garden nursery in Oregon (Hatch 2021-2022).
A selection with red floral bracts, sold by the former Here and Now Garden nurseries in Oregon from 2001 (Hatch 2021-2022). The name appears as ‘Red Shuffle’ in Hatch, probably in error.