This comes primarily from native insect pollinators such as bumblebees, mason bees, solitary bees, flies, beetles, and butterflies.
In our garden and orchard, when we think of spring flowers, we think of pollinators. The first flowers to appear each spring are especially valued since they help to establish a resident bee population which is needed throughout the growing season. Even weeds like dandelions provide valuable nectar early in the season for bees and other pollinators, so we wait to pluck the dandelion flowers until just before they are ready to burst into seed.
Since fruit trees bloom in early – mid spring, these early season pollinators are highly valued in our orchard. Fruit trees have different blooming schedules and may each be in flower for only a week or two. If it rains during this time, the opportunities for wind-borne pollination are reduced, and we need all the help we can get to facilitate pollination. The more bees we can attract to the garden in early spring the better.
There are many flowering plants to choose from which will attract pollinators. But over the years we have come to identify a few favorite flowering stalwarts which have proven to be reliable attractors of pollinator insects such as bees. The plants mentioned here have several things in common. They are among the earliest blooming plants each spring, they are perennial, and they have many small flowers in clusters. Larger flowers from over-wintered bulbs such as daffodils and tulips also attract pollinators, but they require more ground space to accommodate a good number of bees. Compact flowering plants like heather can have scores of bees working the plant at the same time.
Compact flowering plants like heather can have scores of bees working the plant at the same time.
These perennial plants are also hardy and low maintenance. They may need a trim after flowering or a cutting back once in a while, but otherwise they are easy to grow and keep. Some will even repeat flower. They are also easy to divide and move to other spots in the garden or give to other gardeners, and they are so hardy they are nearly indestructible.
Each gardening region has its own native species and seasonal timetable, so the early-season pollinator attracting plants may vary. The plants and flowers mentioned below apply to our Zone 8 region, and there is considerable overlap with other growing regions. Wherever your garden is located, there are a few common characteristics to look for when choosing plants to use as pollinator attractors:
- Use local native plants. Native plants are four times more attractive to native bees than exotic flowers.
- Plant flowers in clumps. Flowers of the same species which are clumped together will attract more bees than individual flowers dispersed throughout the garden.
- Plant flowers with different shapes. Different species of bees have different tongue lengths and favor flowers specific to their anatomy. A variety of sizes and shapes of flower will attract a corresponding variety of bees and pollinating insects.
Next to our garden gate is a mid-size heather plant. When the gate is opened, the heather plant seems to come alive with buzzing, as scores of bumblebees seem to appear from nowhere. Actually they were quietly combing the heather bush and the gate disturbed them. They settle back down to work as I pass, hardly seeming to notice me.
Easy to grow in most regions, heather is a hardy perennial that is one of the earliest blooming spring plants. We planted the heather near the gate because it has a clumping conformation, with thousands of small flowers which can occupy many bees at once. The nearby fruit trees start to bloom about two weeks after the heather, so the newly resident bees naturally migrate towards the fruit tree blooms right on schedule.
2. Red-flowering currant
An early-season favorite, red currant brings a welcome display of carmine flowers to herald the new spring. Currant has three features we especially appreciate – it grows well in rocky ground without needing any special treatment, it is naturally deer-resistant so we can grow it outside the fenced garden area, and it is a magnet for attracting hummingbirds.
Currant, however, is not a compact, clustering plant. It is tall and rangy, reaching out about 6’ in all directions, and it needs to be pruned back every year or two. For this reason, currant should be planted so as not to shade smaller flowering plants. We have currant planted along the north fence line of our garden where it makes an attractive border, with smaller herbs like lavender, thyme and rosemary in front, sharing the same sunny location and rocky soil.
Rockcress produces a dense profusion of small, fragrant blooms in early spring. The flowers range in color from white through lavender, and bloom continually well into summer. The compact flowering mass grows in a low mound, and attracts a steady flow of bees, insects, butterflies and hummingbirds in early spring. Rockcress plants are hardy and will thrive in poor quality soil, so we plant it in garden areas which receive full sun but are not suitable for growing vegetables, and as a border in perennial beds.
Rockcress is native to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, but has become ubiquitous throughout the US. Rockcress will bloom in the spring of the second year after planting, and every year afterward. The plant can appear shaggy after the blooms have died, but plucking the spent blooms will give the plant a clean, healthy look, and promote new growth. Like the Red-flowering currant, Rockcress is deer-resistant which enables it to thrive in unfenced areas.
4. English lavender
This strongly aromatic evergreen shrub produces thousands of small blooms which attract bees throughout its growing cycle. Commonly grown as an ornamental, lavender is deer resistant which is a plus in any garden. During its flowering cycle, which lasts over a month, the lavender is continually buzzing with bumblebees and small native bees. Butterflies are also regular visitors to the English lavender.
Lavender grows best in full sun and requires a light, well-drained soil. It will benefit from a generous application of lime. English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, grows to a height and width of about 3’, and also does well in containers. Lavender is drought-tolerant, and does not do well in damp soil conditions.
A species of Grape Hyacinth, the charming little Muscari is one of the earliest garden flowers to bloom in spring. Planted as bulbs, the spikes of its tiny, downward-facing, bell-shaped flowers are ideal for attracting pollinators to the garden. The flowers become less tightly spaced as the flower matures. The flower color varies from pale blue to a very dark blue, and provides a showy early spring display welcome to the gardener as well as the bees.
Planted as bulbs, Muscari does well in slightly acidic well drained soil. They do well in sun or shade and are commonly planted as borders or in containers. We do not plant bulbs in the borders of annual vegetable bed since it interferes with crop rotation, but this small-standing flower is ideal when planted in clusters adjacent to vegetable beds or in rock gardens.
The above list is by no means conclusive. There are many early spring plants which attract pollinators, and herbs such as Rosemary and Thyme are also garden favorites for foraging bees. And the ubiquitous Forsythia certainly deserves a mention, although it is a non-native species, since it is the first shrub to bloom in many parts of the country. For a list of pollinators in your region, consult the Xerces Society Guide to Attracting Native Pollinators.
Bees and other pollinating insects are declining in numbers due to the loss of habitat, parasites, and pesticides. As gardeners, we can help restore bee populations by observing bee activity in our gardens, and catering to their interests by planting the flowers they prefer. In return, pollinating bees and insects ensure the vitality and productivity of our gardens. It’s a beautiful relationship!