Winter Pollinators in the Native Garden
Late fall and winter are my favorite seasons to watch pollinators. True, there aren’t many native plants blooming at this time, but the ones that do are mighty popular with our little buzzing friends.
By Scott Woodbury
(This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener January/February 2016 issue.)
Late fall and winter are my favorite seasons to watch pollinators. True, there aren’t many native plants blooming at this time, but the ones that do are mighty popular with our little buzzing friends. In late October and early November aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) is a crawling, buzzing mound of bumblebees, green metallic sweat bees, honeybees and various species of flies, hoverflies, skippers and small butterflies. With little else blooming, asters are like thriving islands of commerce with bees exchanging pollination services in exchange for nectar and pollen. In reality, insects are busily stocking up on the last bit of available food before what may turn out to be a long, cold winter.
Aromatic aster blossoms mark the end of the growing season and the beginning of winter. The cultivar ‘Fanny’s Aster’ extends this feeding frenzy into November and at times, December, and blooms beneath newly fallen snow. Great companion plants include
beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) with its complimentary purple berries that birds nibble on through Christmas, and common witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana), which blooms late October through December.
Next at bat is Ozark witchhazel, Hamamelis vernalis which begins blooming in January and
February. Like its cousin, common witchhazel, its blooms are sweetly-scented with petals that unfurl on warm winter days. It is an insect magnet drawing in many species. Pull up a warm cushioned chair, an insect reference book and a hot cup of coffee and prepare to be blown away by a non-stop march of beautiful insects, mostly a variety of flies and small solitary bees and honeybees.
Hazelnut (Corylus americana) blooms next in February and March with dangling yellow male catkins and tiny purple female feather-like flowers near the tips of the branches. The flowers are a curiosity worth a close look. This 5–7 foot tall shrub makes an excellent screen, is tolerant of light shade or full sun, and is a good replacement for invasive bush honeysuckle.
March marks the month of willows with prairie willow (Salix humilus), Missouri willow (Salix eriocephala), and Carolina willow (Salix caroliniana) blooming first, and then peach-leaved willow (Salix amygdaloides) blooming later. The blooms are like mini-pussy willows and are quickly discovered by winter bees and flies on warm days. Prairie and Missouri willows are small shrubs topping out at 5–7 feet. Peach-leaved willow is a 15–20 foot tree resembling wild cherry in bark and form. It fits into narrow spaces or would work well in large or small clusters planted 3–5 feet apart. Carolina willow is a wide tree growing 10–15 feet tall and wide or cut back yearly to form a 7–8 foot twiggy shrub. Good companion plants that also attract late winter pollinators include spring daisy (Erigeron pulchellum), pussytoes (Antennaria parlinii), and western wallflower, Erysimum capitatum.
For sources of these and many other native plants, as well as the services of landscape design and land care professionals, consult the Resource Guide at www.grownative.org.
Horticulturist Scott Woodbury is the Curator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, where he has worked with native plant propagation, design, and education for more than 20 years. He is also an advisor to the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s GrowNative! program.