Honeysuckle — the little fairy in herbal medicine shop

by Liying Huang


Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica Thunb.) is also called Ren Dong (忍冬) or Jin Yin Hua (金银花) in Chinese. It has been a widely-used traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for about 3000 years. Its main Chinese medicinal usage is to dispel the heat-evil, to treat diseases like upper-respiratory tract infections, carbuncles (a cluster of boils, draining pus on the skin), pneumonia and etc. More than 140 chemical compounds have been isolated and determined, and the main chemicals are organic acids, flavones, terpenes, essential oils and etc. In clinical, these components are very important in anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, antioxidant, and hepatoprotective activities, and they can also help reduce the levels of blood fat and endotoxin. In addition, honeysuckle can also be used in the health food and cosmetics industries, it has already been developed into products like tea beverage, beer, perfume and shampoo.


L. japonica (Caprifoliaceae) is also known as Chinese or Japanese honeysuckle (Barceloux, 2008) . In Chinese, it is called Ren Dong (忍冬) or Jin Yin Hua (金银花). Jin Yin Hua is derived from Jin (gold) and Yin (silver) in Chinese. According to ‘Ben Cao Gang Mu’ (Compendium of Material Medica) which was compiled by Shizhen Li during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 CE), when the flowers start to bloom, both of the stamen and petals are white, after two or three days, they start to have colour alteration into bright yellow like golds. Since the time of the colour change is different, the flowers seem to have two main colours. Honeysuckle is originally from East Asia (Barceloux, 2008), now as an ornamental shrubs introduced in countries like Argentina, Mexico, United States and Europe including the United Kingdom. (Shang et al., 2011). The modern pharmacological studies showed that honeysuckle has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, hepatoprotective and blood sugar and fat reducing activities (Wang, 2008). Besides the function of being a traditional medicinal herb, it also can be used as health food and tea beverage.

Botanical description

L. japonica , is an erect climbing or scrambling shrub (Kumar et al., 2005). According to Wagner et al. (1999), the flowering period of honeysuckle is usually from May to September, and a single flower can flower for 5 to 8 days. The process can be divided into six stages (the juvenile bud stage, the third green stage, the second white stage, the complete white stage, the silver flowering stage and the gold flowering stage). The flowers usually have a pleasant odour which can form red to blue-black berries. The leaves however are quite simple, with ovate, elliptic, oblong or broadly lanceolate shapes (Barceloux, 2008).



Honeysuckle has been a very important herbal medicine in TCM for over 3000 years due to its wide spectrum of biological and pharmacological properties. According to the textual research, in Song Dynasty and before, the vines and leaves of honeysuckle had been mostly used. However, after Ming Dynasty, the application of flowers have got more and more attention, especially during the interim time between Ming and Qing dynasty (Teng, 2007). Now, honeysuckle has been planted and used as sort of local medicine in many places, especially in East Asia. In China, it is widely distributed in drainage areas around the Yellow River and Yangzi River, and has been cultivated largely in certain counties of Hunan, Henan and Shandong provinces (Shang et al., 2011).

Honeysuckle (L. japonica ) has been included in the Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China (Committee for the Pharmacopoeia of PR China, 1995). There are many forms of preparation and use, for example, made into a wine to clear away the heat-evil and expel superficial evils or a decoction to clear heat and detoxicating (Shang et al., 2011). Other preparations are used as well to treat diseases like chronic enteritis, pneumonia, acute tonsillitis, nephritis. In quite recent research, honeysuckle has also been applied to prevent and treat some serious viral diseases such as SARS coronavirus, H1N1 (Swine) flu virus, and being called the ‘Bo Fan Mei Su’ (bouvardin) (Jiao, 2009). Honeysuckle can also be used in the cosmetics or food industry, like a healthy tea beverage popular in China to treat sore throat (e.g. Jin Yin Hua tea, Jin Yin Hua oral liquid). Honeysuckle has become more and more popular in everyday uses and in cosmetics, like products ‘Jin Yin Hua flower water’ and ‘Jin Yin Hua facial mask’. Honeysuckle has been made into toothpaste since it has the effects of preventing and treating the oral cavity’s diseases (Jiao, 2009) due to the antibacterial and antiseptic activities showed in the flower extracts of it (Zhang, 2009).HoneysucklePreparations in TCM

Jin Yin Hua Jiu (金银花酒)(Zhong Yi Shi Jia, Jin Yin Hua Jiu)

In this preparation, fresh leaves and flowers of honeysuckle are used to treat superficial infection and furunculosis (boil; an accumulation of pus and dead tissue resulting in a painful swollen area on the skin). The plant materials are ground in a ceramic container, added with a little juice of spring onions and wine to get a homogeneous mixture for topical use.

Jin Yin Hua Gao (金银花膏)(Zhong Yi Shi Jia, Jin Yin Hua Gao)

This preparation is for pregnancy carbuncle (a cluster of boils, draining pus on the skin). It is an ointment made by honeysuckle flowers, liquorice root and leonurus.

Zhi Zi Jin Hua Wan (栀子金花丸) (Zhong Yi Shi Jia, Zhi Zi Jin Hua Wan)

This is a formula of brownish-yellow pellets with a bitter taste. This preparation is used for cooling and dispelling the heat-evil, including curing the swell of throat, constipation, conjunctival congestion, etc. Honeysuckle flower, cape jasmine flower, coptis root, Baikal skullcap root, phellodendron, rhubarb stem and root, rhizoma anemarrhenae and pinellia root are used in this complicated preparation.

Other preparations

There are many other preparations, either with honeysuckle alone or in combination with other TCMs, such as Yin Qiao Tang (银翘汤), Xiao Du San (消毒散), Bei Mu San (贝母散), and etc. (Shang et al., 2011). They are in many different formulations like decoction, powder, pellet, ointment, syrup, and etc. Most of the useful applications are for dispelling the heat-evil and curing upper respiratory tract infections.

Characteristic secondary (and primary) natural products

Over 140 compounds have been identified from honeysuckle (Shang et al., 2011), most importantly organic acids, flavones, essential oils and terpenes (Jing et al., 2014). 5.1 Organic acids

Chlorogenic acid and isochlorogenic acid are the major bioactive organic acids (Jing et al., 2014). Many studies have shown that chlorogenic acid have strong antibacterial activity on both Gram negative and Gram positive bacteria, and the effect is better on the Gram negative bacteria (Xu, 2008). It has many actions other than antibacterial and antiviral activities, such as anticancer, reducing blood sugar and pressure, scavenging free radicals and exciting central nerve system activities. (Jing et al., 2014). However, at a clinical level the evidence for such effects is very limited. Caffeic acid and hexadecanoic acid also can isolated from honeysuckle flowers (Huang et al., 2005).


About 30 flavones have been isolated from L. japonica (Shang et al., 2011). Luteolin was the first isolated chemical in 1949 by the Japanese scientist Oki Kyutaro, then in 1961 he isolated lonicerin from honeysuckle. After that, many other flavones such as hypcroside, corymbosin and 5-hydroxyl-3,4,7-trimethoxy flavone, etc. were isolated and identified (Huang et al., 2005). According to some studies, Luteolin has inhibition effect on many bacterias and viruses, such as Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, poliovirus,etc. by inhibiting the actions of topoisomerase Ⅰ and Ⅱ. Hypcroside has effective action on local analgesic, the effect is weaker than morphine, but Essential oil Essential oil exists in the aerial parts, flowers, leaves and vines (Shang et al., 2011). There are over 192 compounds isolated and identified from its essential oil (Wang et al., 2008), including aromadendrene (Shang et al., 2011), linalool, geraniol, and hexadecanoic acid, etc. (Huang et al., 2005). There is a big difference in essential oil components in the two status (fresh and dry)of the flower buds. Fresh flower buds usually contain more than 14% of linalool, while dried ones have about 26% of hexadecanoic acid (Huang et al., 2005). Linalool has good antibacterial activities on staphylococcus, Escherichia coli, saccharomycetes, Candida albicans and etc. The antibacterial effect is almost five times higher than phenols, and quite similar with citronellol (an acyclic monoterpenoid can be found in roses and geraniums) (Jing et al., 2014).


The most important group are the triterpenoidal saponins. According to Kawai et al. (1988), identified 15 different saponins. In 2003, loniceroside C was isolated from the aerial parts, which was a new triterpenoid saponin which showed anti-inflammatory activity in vivo (Kwak et al., 2003). And two other new triterpenoid saponins, loniceroside D and loniceroside E were isolated from dried flowers and buds (Lin et al., 2008).


Antibacterial and antiviral activity

Antibacterial activity is a very important property of honeysuckle. It is effective on many pathogens, such as Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, haemolytic Streptococcus, Vibrio cholera, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and tubercle bacillus, etc. (Huang et al., 2005). According to Huang et al. (2005), the water extract worked much better than the decoction (the concentrated extract). Flavonoids from honeysuckle have a strong antibacterial action, especially for MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus) (Tang e tal., 2008). Antiviral activity was supported to the traditional uses and drug’s nature of honeysuckle in traditional Chinese medicine. It has effects on RSV, HIV, HSV, PRV, and etc. In 2003, honeysuckle was widely used to prevent and control SARS coronavirus (State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine of the People’s Republic of China).

Anti-inflammatory activity

Anti-inflammatory activity is another important pharmacological action of honeysuckle. The extract inhibits the podedema induced by dimethylbenzene carrageenan, and albumen, etc. It also has effect on acute inflammation which are comparable to dexamethasone (DXM) (Chen and Liu, 2013). It is suggested that honeysuckle is a safe and mild anti-inflammatory agent for treating various inflammatory disorders (Shang et al., 2011).

Hepatoprotective activity

The chlorogenic acid derivatives and tritepernoid saponins have strong hepatoprotective activity (Huang et al., 2005; Chen and Liu, 2013). The total flavones decrease the raised liver indexes, and improve the aggravated liver histopathologic changes (Shang et al.,

Other effects

Honeysuckle has many other effects on human bodies, such as its antioxidant, anti-timor, contraceptive, and antihyperlipidemic activities, etc. (Shang et al., 2011).


According to Chang et al. (2003), acute toxicity test showed an LD50 (lethal dose to half of all animals treated) of > 15 g/kg of body weight. The extract of honeysuckle was found to be fairly nontoxic when oral acute and subacute toxicity assessment in rats were performed. Consequently, chronic toxicity study is needed for further support the safe use of this plant (Shang et al., 2011). A case report of a 61-year-old man receiving warfarin associated the development of easy bruising, epistaxis, bleeding gums, and elected international normalised ratio with the ingestion of an herb product containing extracts of honeysuckle. However,the drug interaction between warfarin and honeysuckle still remain unclear (Barceloux, 2008).


Honeysuckle (L. japonica) is an important medicinal plant in TCM history. It has a sweet taste, a cooling character and does help to the heart, lung and stomach (Chen and Liu, 2003). Multifunction is the reason that honeysuckle has been entitled to the name ‘little fairy in the herbal medicine shop’. With the advanced study and analysis of honeysuckle, it will play a more and more vital role in therapeutic applications such as in antibacterial and anti-viral areas therapies.

In this essay we do not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. The use of any such product should be based on the appropriate advice of a health care professional or based on the information available in the patient information leaflets (i.e. for THR products).


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© Liying HUANG, MSc

Medicinal Natural Products and Phytochemistry student (2015 – 2016),
Research Cluster ‘Biodiversity and Medicines’ / Centre for Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy,
UCL School of Pharmacy, Univ. London,
29 – 39 Brunswick Sq.
London WC1N 1AX