Everyone has heard the saying “April showers bring May flowers” to explain away the more gloomy days of spring. But did you know that pollinators can’t wait until May for their flowers.
Many backyard gardens are missing critical early blooming native flowers. The countryside may be full of tulips, daffodils and hyacinths, but these do little to help our pollinators when they need it the most.
Waking the Bees
Native bees do not overwinter in a hive like the more familiar honeybee. Most native bees are considered solitary. They do not form lasting swarms but instead go it alone. Honeybees store food for the winter and early spring months, but bumble bees do not have this luxury. Female bumble bees wake in early spring hungry and must immediately find food.
These early spring days are critical for the bumble bee’s survival. A single female may visit around 6,000 flowers a day to regain her strength from her winter hibernation. This nectar is critical for her to be able to brood her eggs and create the next generation of bumble bees.
She cannot fly far during this time, so the flowers must be close to the hibernation nest. If she is in your backyard, it is up to you to provide the right spring blooming plants for her.
In the spring hummingbirds also need quick food. The Ruby-throated and Rufous hummingbirds begin their northern migration in February each year. They overwinter along the Mexican border and some may fly 4,000 miles to reach their breeding grounds. (Check out my post about this year’s migration).
As we all know, spring weather can be unpredictable. Hummingbirds caught in a late spring snow or strong storm front must hunker down. When this occurs the birds get hungry. If they are near your backyard at this time, your chosen plants may be the difference between their life and death.
Migrating Monarchs have the same perils as the hummingbirds. While they tend to leave their winter homes in Mexico later than the hummingbirds, they still are at the mercy of the weather.
Variety is key
The mentioned spring pollinators all feed from different plants. What would satisfy a bumble bee would be ignored by a Monarch or humming bird. This is why a variety of native plants must exist in your backyard and your community.
The following are suggestions for plants you can grow in your area to help these pollinators.
Important Spring Plants by Area:
East of the Mississippi:
Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, blooms for two weeks in the early spring before most plants have leafed out. This large shrub provides nectar for the smaller pollinators like flies and tiny bees. Its great for deep shade, or that swampy spot in your backyard.
The eastern columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, is a classic hummingbird plant. The native version sports a hanging red flower that these birds find irresistible. It can be used almost anywhere in the wildlife backyard, handling sun and shade. It also reseeds easily, giving you plenty share with your neighbors.
When people think of pollinator plants, maple trees are not usually on the top of the list; however the red maple, Acer rubrum, is a pollinator favorite. This tree blooms very early in the spring, becoming one of the first nectar sources for bees. The tree is wind pollinated, but still produces this insect food. Due to its small size it fits in most backyards as a nice shade tree.
If you can grow a larger tree, the black cherry, Prunus serotina, is one of the best trees for wildlife, not just pollinators. Its blooms are a nectar source for native bees and butterflies. Learn more about the black cherry in my post!
Lanceleaf Coreopsis, Coreopsis lanceolata, is a workhorse in the native backyard. This short lived perennial is great for a hot sunny spot. It will fill its space with bright yellow blooms from early spring until frost that are loved by native bumblebees. Allow it to reseed and you won’t have to worry about planting it again.
West of the Mississippi:
Prairie Smoke, Geum trifolorum, is also known as Old Man’s Whiskers due to the small, wispy flowers that appear in early spring. This small flower is a favorite of bumblebees as they are strong enough to open the flower to reach the pollen inside.
Not to be outdone by the east, the western United States also has its own red columbine. The western columbine, Aquilegia formosa, provides the same vital hummingbird food as its eastern cousin. It too thrives in full sun to part shade and will reseed itself.
Mountain phlox, Phlox austromontana, is an excellent choice if you have a dry, sunny area. This low growing perennial makes an excellent groundcover, covering itself in flowers and pollinators.
Red beardtongue, Penstemon barbatus, is a rarity in the penstemon world. It has brilliant red flowers, unlike most of its cousins and it blooms in the spring and fall. Plant this for hummingbirds and you won’t be disappointed.
If you are looking for a small western tree the Saskatoon Serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia, is a great addition to the wildlife backyard. This tree has early white flowers pollinated by bees followed by edible purple berries in June. It’s easy to grow in sun or part shade.
If you a looking for a waterwise, sun loving, evergreen, flowering shrub, look no further than the California Lilac (Ceanothus spp.) These fragrant bushes produce pollen and nectar bringing in a variety of bees and butterflies.
Evergreen Violet, Viola sempervirens, is a wonderful groundcover for pollinators. It sports low growing yellow flowers in early spring. This plant is a wonderful addition for a shade garden providing early season color.
No garden should be without a penstemon, and the Azure Penstemon (Penstemon azureus) native to California and Oregon is no exception. This woodland plant blooms from late spring well into summer. These blooms bring numerous bees and hummingbirds. Place it in well-draining soil in sun to light shade and let it flower!
If hummingbirds are your goal, don’t forget to plant a red flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum, in your wildlife backyard. Flowering as the leaves unfurl, the shrub entertains a crowd of hummingbirds. This easy care shrub tolerates drought and sun.
Every wildlife backyard needs a large shade tree and for the Pacific Northwest the Bigleaf Maple, Acer macrophyllum, is a great choice. A rapid grower in its youth, it can reach 100’ tall and 50’ wide. Give this one room to spread. Like the red maple, this tree’s flowers help many small pollinators in early spring.
Carolina Jessamine, Gelsemium sempervirens, is a beautiful evergreen vine that is iconic of the south. Easy to grow, it will scramble over any trellis, reaching 10-20 feet long. Its yellow blossoms appear so early in spring that sometimes it starts blooming in December, but can also rebloom in fall. While you shouldn’t eat honey from this plant (it is toxic to honeybees and humans) our native pollinators have no trouble with it.
When one thinks of pollinators, beetles are probably not on the list. The Southern Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, specializes in beetle pollination. The creamy white flowers don’t have nectar, but they have a large amount of pollen. The flowers also attract native halictid and apid bees looking for a high protein treat.
To extend the spring flowering season the Sourwood Tree, Oxydendrum arboreum, is an excellent choice. Don’t try this tree in basic soil, it’s an acid lover. If you can grow azaleas in your soil, a sourwood will be at home. The blossoms are loved by honeybees, in fact, sourwood honey is famous in the south.
The Florida Flame Azalea, Rhododendron austrinum, begins April with a blaze of orange flowers. The flowers have a slight fragrance and are a sure stop for any migrating hummingbird. Butterflies also visit the shrub.
Red Buckeye, Aesculus pavi, is the hummingbird tree. Its brilliant red flowers pull the birds in from miles. Place this small tree in moist well-drained soil and each spring you will be in for a hummingbird treat.
With so many choices out there, it’s easy to find a spring pollinator plant. So don’t delay. Buy one (or two, or three) of these amazing plants now and enjoy the pollinators next spring!