Sandi Crabtree is the president of Crabtree Gardens, LLC in Drums, Pa., where she advocates natural methods of gardening. She is a garden writer, speaker, designer and amateur photographer that shares her thoughts on her blog called Her Way at Crabtree Gardens and her website

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Spring-Blooming Plants, Shrubs and Trees for Early Pollinators
by Sandi Crabtree    

This is the time when we feel most alive and our senses seem to be in overdrive. It’s the promise of renewal and awakening. Spring has finally arrived! 

The flower (tepals) of Magnolia stellata in foreground is the star in front of a curtain of Forsythia x intermedia. Both shrubs attract pollinating insects.

Just as we humans have this innate sense of wonder and an increased zest for life in spring, there is a resurgence of life in the invertebrate world as they emerge in search of food. We are usually aware of pollinators darting about in the height of summer. Garden centers promote summer-blooming perennials that will attract them, but we may overlook the needs of these industrious pollinating insects in very early spring.

At a time when there are still freezing night temperatures and even snow, pollinators such as bees, flies, beetles, butterflies and moths emerge and begin their life cycles in our gardens. They can be seen searching for necessary life sources such as nectar and pollen among the spring-blooming bulbs like daffodils, crocus, hyacinths and tulips.

Serving the needs of insects is not something that usually influences the purchase of our plants and shrubs but more consideration should be given. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that many pollinators are still currently in decline and suggests that native plants be used as a first choice to provide a bounty of pollen sources. Diversity is always the key to providing good sources of both native and introduced pollen-and-nectar-bearing flowers that can play host to these important garden visitors.

Crocus naturalized in the lawn add diversity to a garden.

In addition to those colorful early-spring bulbs, think about adding spring-blooming shrubs, some with multi-season interest and fragrance, which produce a bounty of blooms to the delight of any gardener and pollinator. By planting different heights of early bloomers it helps to ensure there are food sources available for the pollinators should there be a late-spring snowfall covering the flowers near the ground. Taller shrubs and small flowering trees could provide the nectar pollinators need for survival, especially in new housing developments where mature trees are scarce.

How can you help the plight of the early-season pollinator? Choose a specimen tree such as Magnolia spp.. This genus has more than 200 species and it is one of the first flowering trees in spring. One of the most cold-hardy specimens is M. stellata, often called star magnolia because of the star-like shape of the flowers, which are actually tepals or outer petals of a flower. Growing in Zones 4 to 8, this tree from Asia can reach 20 feet high and 15 feet wide and can also be grown as a large shrub. The star magnolia is a welcome addition to the home garden with its beautiful vase shape. It prefers a sunny location with evenly moist soil, but it will take light shade. When the star magnolia explodes with blooms in early spring it provides a show of 3- to 4-inch star-shaped white flowers that are slightly pink tinged with 12 to 18 petal-like tepals borne on bare lateral branches. The flowers release a spicy fragrance with bloom time continuing from late March through April. Oblong medium-green leaves 4 inches long and 1 ½ inches wide follow up the show. The large flowers of magnolias have evolved specifically for pollination by beetles and do not contain nectar, only pollen. Small beetles are attracted to the odor of these large flowers and will eat the pollen.

Lady beetles, which are known for eating aphids, will eat pollen in their absence. This lady beetle is covered with pollen grains from Forsythia x intermedia, an early booming shrub.

Rely on an old-fashioned shrub like Forsythia spp. Said to be a harbinger of spring, and one of the earliest blooming shrubs, forsythia is a very important source of food for early pollinators. Its yellow bell-shaped flowers appear before the leaves for the purpose of attracting nectar-hungry diners, especially bees. There are about a dozen different species of forsythia coming from Asia with the exception of one from Europe. Hardy in Zones 4 to 8, this shrub belongs to the olive family (Oleacea) and can grow up to 10 feet tall and wide. It is a very reliable bloomer with flowering beginning in mid-March through mid-April. Ovate serrated leaves follow the flowers and leaves remain green until turning bronze in fall. Because of its quick-growing and arching habit, forsythias are often improperly used as a foundation plant and usually end up getting too big for their space. Forsythia shrubs need plenty of room to grow where the branches can arch giving it that distinctive look. 

This bumble bee is attracted to nectar in the corolla of a blueberry bush (Vaccinium sp.).

Consider planting an edible fruiting plant such as the blueberry, of the genus Vaccinium. The blueberry is part of the Ericacace family and native to North and South America. Depending on the variety, they are deciduous or evergreen. The bell-shaped flowers (corollas) that are borne in clusters on the stems can bloom in an array of shades including white, pink, red-tinged and almost green (determined by variety). They are easy to grow in Zones 4 to 8 in acidic soil. Blueberry shrubs can grow to heights of 1 to 7 feet with bloom time occurring in early to midspring. Nectar from blueberry flowers will provide food for bees and the mid-April-emerging spring azure butterfly, in addition to other pollinators. In order to set fruit, the blueberry’s flowers must be pollinated by insects. The flowers can survive low-plunging spring temperatures in the upper 20 F range usually without affecting fruiting. And you can look forward to a bounty of sweet blueberries for your own table in a few weeks — if the birds don’t beat you to it!

By layering your garden with a diverse collection of early-blooming perennials, shrubs and trees in addition to those much loved colorful spring bulbs, it will not only improve the chances for the pollinators’ survival, it will also create a symbiotic habitat for other wildlife visiting your garden.

Photos by Sandi Crabtree


Posted: 04/01/13   RSS | Print


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