Three Native Plant Choices for Late Winter/Early Spring

Declining Pollinators

Many pollinator species have suffered serious declines in recent years because of a variety factors-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.

Invasive Bradford Pears line a typical suburban stree

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, or even in containers on your deck. 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 requisite invasive Bradford Pears and Pachysandra ground covers. Publicizing awareness of bee declines, and native pollinator losses has generated a resurgence of interest in better land stewardship for home owners to help stem the tide.

Native bee habitat

You don’t have to become a beekeeper to be part of the solution. Planting your property with native plants, perennials, trees, and shrubs, can provide an oasis for wildlife for years to come. Spreading the word through talking to your friends and neighbors also helps enormously.

Let your neighbors know what you are doing

Bees and other insects are the most common pollinators and according to the USGS, there are over 4000 native bees in North America providing ‘ecosystem services‘. And very few of them sting, if you are concerned with bringing additional bees to your property by planting more natives.

Plant in layers and blocks of plant for a fully integrated native plant garden
Groupings of native plants provide a target for bees and other pollinators

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.  Blooming times are critical when selecting, as you want to provide a succession of food sources all year long- even in winter. The most critical times to provide something blooming is when there is a nectar dearth- late winter/early spring and fall/early winter- what I call ‘shoulder seasons’. The choices available for pollinators then are slim to none and is a critical time for many pollinators. The following are three choices that you can plant for  late winter/early spring.

American Witch Hazel  

American Witch Hazel in full boom in December- picture by Gretchen Schmidl

For winter, one of the best native choices is Witch Hazel, Hamamelis virginiana 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 blooming 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.

Witch Hazel in flower

Witch Hazel can be grown in containers for a few years for a great pot plant, but as it gets older, it will need to be transplanted into the landscape. The supple branches are still used as divining rods to search for water sources. Wild turkeys and squirrels feed on the seeds and it is the larval host for several butterfly species. An astringent made from the leaves and bark is still sold worldwide for a variety of uses.

Spicebush

Another great early spring choice for pollinators would be 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 also 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.

Spicebush is a woodland plant with small flowers in early spring

A variety of sawflies, flies, wasps, and bees pollinate these early blooming trees and a fruit develops that birds and small mammals relish. Not only animals have a use for this beautiful tree, but humans brew teas from the dried leaves that are said to help with pain, arthritis, and fever. The oil extracted from the berries can be used to treat bruises and first aid sab for cuts, and the dried fruit can be crushed to add spice to food. If those qualities weren’t enough, Spicebush turns a wonderful yellow color in the fall, making a great specimen tree for the landscape. It is the larval host for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and the Spicebush Swallowtail and tolerates deer browsing.

Flower of spicebush in early spring
Spicebush has a great fall color

Bloodroot

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) has large creamy white blossoms with yellow centers and resemble garden anemones. Spreading by underground rhizomes and Bloodroot can form large colonies. Useful under deciduous trees, or tucked in with shorter perennials that fill in after the bloodroot goes dormant, I always welcome the blooms of these beautiful woodland flowers in early spring.

The deeply lobed leathery leaves remain after the flowers disappear
These flowers pop up in undisturbed woodland settings

6 Replies to “Three Native Plant Choices for Late Winter/Early Spring”

  1. Bloodroot is an incredible spring ephemeral. Though it doesn’t bloom long, it’s beautiful and supports some of those early to appear pollinators. Great advice and ideas about plants to select for those early season pollinators.

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