Many pollinator species have suffered serious declines in recent years because of a variety of factors, including loss and fragmentation of habitat, pesticide use, and climate change. Unfortunately, most of our suburban and urban landscapes offer little in the way of appropriate habitat, forage, and housing. Even the most beautiful gardens are not always healthy ecosystems, and a suburban property can be a veritable ‘food desert’ landscape offering very few choices of appropriate forage plants. Growing the correct native plants can help support pollinators.
Creating Your Own Healthy Habitat
Design choices, plant selections, and maintenance practices can make a huge difference in creating your own healthy ecosystem in your backyard. As a garden designer, I am getting more and more requests to design landscapes with natives that are both attractive and beneficial for wildlife and pollinators, rather than sticking with the often-requested invasive Bradford Pears and Pachysandra ground covers.
Timing is Everything
Both pollen and nectar provide important food sources for pollinators, and you should think about what the native plants are providing when you make your plant selections and when they are providing it. Blooming times are critical when selecting, as you want to provide a succession of food sources all year long – especially in winter and early spring. The choices available for pollinators then are slim to none, and it is a critical time for many pollinators. The following are a palette of choices that you can plant for late winter/early spring to support pollinators.
Trees and Shrubs
For winter, one of the best native choices is Witch Hazel, Hamamelis vernalis, with its curious spider-like fragrant yellow flowers. An understory small tree or large shrub, it flowers when most other shrubs and trees aren’t in bloom in shady or sunny locations. An often-overlooked shrub in the summer, with medium green crinkled leaves, the pollinator for this is not bees, unless we get a warm spell, but a winter moth that is active on very cold nights. Amazingly, the moths have the unique ability to raise their body temperature by the simple method of shivering to find their food on freezing nights. (If you are looking to support pollinators in late fall/early winter, another Witchhazel, Hamamelis virginiana, is a good option.)
Another great early spring choice for pollinators is Spicebush shrub/tree, Lindera benzoin, which has highly aromatic spicy leaves, bark, and flowers. Often found in groups in the woodlands and along streams, Spicebush is an understory graceful tree in shade or partial shade. The yellow green flowers appear in March or early April before the foliage and you can spot them in the woods because it is about the only thing in bloom. A variety of sawflies, flies, wasps, and bees pollinate these early blooming trees, and red berries develop that birds and small mammals relish.
An early herald of spring are the pink fireworks of blooms that closely cover the branches of the smallish Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis, tree. The beauty of these trees extends well beyond the spring season with the appearance of heart-shaped green leaves in summer and dangling brown pods that remain on the trees after the leaves fall. Resilient and suited to small to medium properties, Eastern Redbud is a tree that is ideal for sunny lawns to attract bees, birds, and butterflies to their pink spring flowers. I have also planted them on a shady woodland edge where they are quite successful.
Tag Alder, Alnus serrulata, is a small, deciduous tree that grows 10 to 15 feet tall. Found naturally in wet areas, it makes a great rain garden specimen. In late winter, slim, green, male flowers and red, female flowers mature. The fat alder catkins start spilling pale yellow pollen which honeybees use for early spring build-up which they use for energy stores to start new bees. The small tree produces a seed or small cone that matures in the fall and persists through the winter. I love seeing the drooping catkins in the winter landscape.
A diminutive ground cover, Moss Phlox or Creeping Phlox, Phlox subulata, is a mat forming perennial wildflower with evergreen needle-like leaves. Its spring foliage is covered by masses of starry violet, pinkish or white flowers. Moss Phlox is a fine groundcover for sunny gardens with moist well drained soil. I grow it cascading over a stone wall.
Heartleaf Foam Flower
Foam Flower, Tiarella cordifolia, forms large ground-cover colonies. Having a frothy appearance, the small star-shaped flowers are arranged on stalks that extend above attractive lobed leaves. Creating numerous runners, you can plant spring bulbs amongst this mat to pop up in the spring to add to the flower show. One of my favorite wildflowers, it is useful for shady sites under trees.
Eastern Red Columbine
Eastern Red Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, is a beauty. Sporting showy, drooping, bell-like flowers with star like spurs, similar to other garden Columbines, it can self-propagate for years from a single plant. The spurs contain nectar that attracts long-tongued insects and hummingbirds especially adapted for reaching the sugary nectar. An easy plant to naturalize, it is suited to woodlands, borders, or cottage gardens. Combining well with spring bulbs, trilliums, wild geranium, and ginger, my plants disappear when the summer heat arrives in June or July.
By choosing plants that bloom in late winter/early spring, you can help support local pollinators at a time of year when they need it most. Shop our pollinator friendly plants today!
Want to stay up-to-date with all of our Native News? Sign up for our email newsletter!
Claire is a horticulturalist and landscape design consultant. Owner of Claire Jones Landscapes, LLC, Claire’s designed gardens have been featured in print publications like WSJ and Style Magazine. A garden writer at The Garden Diaries, Claire maintains 3 honeybee hives and gardens at her home in Maryland.