Life & Style
Planning Now to Help Pollinators All Year
Pussy willow (Salix discolor) offers some of the earliest forage for early bees. It is a prodigious pollen producer. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
Hophornbeam has unusual seedheads, which become important bird food. The tree is also a larval host for butterflies. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
The March blossoms of red maples offer some of the earliest pollinator forage of the year. Here, a mourning cloak butterfly lights beneath a red maple on March 21, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
A tiny hoverfly foraged on a witch hazel on Nov. 16, 2019. The tree is our region’s latest-blooming native plant. (Photo courtesy of Tony Bacewicz, Atlantic Vision Media )
Fungus gnats forage inside cylindrical Jack-in-the-pulpit flowers, which appear late in March. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
The unusual August flowers of buttonbush are described as a “pollinator powerhouse” by the Native Plant Trust plant finder app. Find the link in the story. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
A dragonfly waits for prey on steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) in August. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
Skunk cabbage is probably the first native plant to emerge in southern New England. It is pollinated by early flies and beetles. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
The beach plum (Prunus maritima) provides early forage for bees with April blossoms. True to its name, this native shrub can live in hot, dry conditions and tolerate saltwater. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
Let’s talk about skunk cabbage.
Around the last week in February, these funky blossoms smell mighty good to particular flies. Those flies offer something to the skunk cabbage, too. They are pollinators; their visits assure skunk cabbage will live to bloom another year.
Indeed, the growing season, and pollinator season, of southern New England starts sooner than you may think and doesn’t end until early November. If you’re dreaming of this year’s flowers and want to support birds and pollinators, too, the month-by-month lists below will help.
See the names of native plants that, if carefully selected, will offer continuous pollen, nectar, berries, seeds, and habitat.
Why native plants?
To put it simply, native plants are the gold standard. While it is true that many non-native plants are productive, native plants offer the highest level of pollinator and bird support to the broadest number of regional bird and insect species. Furthermore, among the native plants, the most productive are “straight species,” not cultivated varieties with snappy names like ‘Pink Persuasion’ after the botanical name. If you want to learn more, see www.xerces.org/blog/cultivar-conundrum.
Botanical names make all the difference for your native plant shopping excursions. Many common names apply to two or even three plants.
Many independent garden centers sometimes can order a specific plant if they don’t have inventory, but you’ll need to give them the exact botanical name. To find those names, I suggest searching the Native Plant Trust plant-finder database (plantfinder.nativeplanttrust.org/Plant-Search). It offers filters for bloom times and many other plant features, as well as a “pollinator powerhouse” filter.
Eight Months of Blossoms and Pollinators
March: We can’t plant March blossoms this year, but it’s a perfect time to observe what’s coming alive close to home or work. You may find early flying mason bees and mining bees on the pussy willows, for instance. Other late March blossoms include silver maples and black willows. If you aren’t sure what you’re seeing, try Picture This, a helpful app for Apple or Android phones (www.picturethisai.com). It is more than 85 percent accurate and a lot of fun, besides.
April: The number of blossoming natives explodes in April, as do the active insects. Watch the colors pop on spicebush, serviceberries, blueberries, huckleberries, early dogwoods, and azaleas. Less showy, but no less important, are the blossoms of birches, hackberries, hazelnuts, and hophornbeams.
By late April, spring ephemerals such as trout lily, rue anemone, blunt-lobed hepatica, bloodroot, and spring beauty offer food for both bees and ants. So do violets blossom, along with golden Alexanders, marsh marigolds, green-and-gold, golden groundsels, woodland strawberries, bluets, and many sedges.
May: Some of the showiest trees blossom this month, including redbuds, native cherry trees, and beach plums. Dogwoods continue their display, as do chokeberries, fragrant sumacs, Labrador tea, ninebark, Allegheny blackberries, and bush honeysuckle. Less showy but equally pollinator-friendly May bloomers include inkberries, winterberries, bearberry, sand cherry, sugar maples, white oaks, sassafras, American hollies, and hornbeams. Native fleabane abounds. Perennial penstemon begins its six-week display.
June: Sweetbay magnolias and hawthorns light up, as do American basswood, blackgum, speckled alder, red and black elderberries, swamp rose, potentilla, New Jersey tea, ninebark, and some viburnums. Rhododendrons and azaleas bloom, along with Carolina allspice, and the less showy but pollinator-friendly sweet fern.
In June, native perennial flowers arrive en masse. They include yellow baptisia, lupine, wild bergamot, spotted bee balm, yarrow, milkweeds, American heuchera, mountainmint, anise hyssop, Ohio spiderwort, and queen of the meadow.
July: Among trees, only sumacs and a southeastern native, sourwood, flower this month. Among native shrubs, we can enjoy mountain laurel, Carolina rose, swamp rose, more rhododendrons, and the less showy but pollinator-friendly bayberry.
July perennial flowers include evening primrose, several types of goldenrod, spotted beebalm, Joe-Pye weed, culver’s root, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, boneset, large-leaved wood-aster, and blue lobelia.
August: Sweet pepperbush and steeplebush often begin blooming in July but make their best show in August, as does wetland-loving buttonbush. Some sumacs continue blooming in August. The perennial flower parade is abundant, with more goldenrod varieties, partridge peas, asters, rose mallow, and Helen’s flower. Moisture-loving cardinal flower and turtlehead bloom in August, too.
September: The stunningly pretty Franklinia tree blooms in this month. It is a southeastern native named for Benjamin Franklin, and it is now extinct in the wild. Perennial blossoms include more goldenrod varieties, more asters, New York ironweed, and white snakeroot (also called chocolate Joe-Pye weed).
October and early November: The last showy goldenrod and aromatic asters attract late pollinators in droves. Native witch hazel, our latest-blooming native plant, sends out its curious yellow flowers. The flowers last until mid-November some years.
Here are some resources to learn more about pollinators and their relationships with native plants:
• Professor Douglas Tallamy’s website: www.HomegrownNationalPark.org
• Pollinator Pathway: www.pollinator-pathway.org
• Xerces Society: xerces.org/pollinators-northeast-region
• Species vs. Cultivar Discussion: www.xerces.org/blog/cultivar-conundrum
• Audubon plant finder : www.audubon.org/native-plants
• Native Plant Trust plant finder: plantfinder.nativeplanttrust.org/Plant-Search
• Pollinators in Connecticut: portal.ct.gov/CAES/Publications/Publications/Pollinator-Information
• Picture This app: www.picturethisai.com
Let the planning begin!
Kathy Connolly writes and speaks on landscape design, landscape ecology, and horticulture. Kathy@SpeakingofLandscapes.com.