Last year I took part in The Great Sunflower Project which caused me to pay more attention to bees. What I noticed was that the queen bumble bees were out long before any of the native flowers, or even the weeds, were flowering. They were visiting my crocus, and those of my neighbor, but still, it just didn’t seem like I had planted enough to keep these bees in pollen, so I resolved to plant more. And that prompted me to look more carefully at what I might plant that would flower really early. Besides helping the bees, it also does my soul a world of good to see flowers after a long grey, white and blue winter.
For the earliest flowers it has to be bulbs. Those plants that flower in winter in other places, either don’t grow here at all, or think that our spring is still the winter – which is quite understandable – most years I think that too. Daffodils are lovely, add a spectacular splash of color, and are even rodent-proof, but that’s because they are poisonous, and bees tend to avoid them too. Tulips add an even brighter splash with vivid oranges, reds and yellows, but I’ve noticed that the bees don’t show much interest in them either, and wow, do the gophers love them. Planting tulips is like planting a rodent smorgasbord. It’s the small, species bulbs that flower first, rather than the big showy hybrids, and after you start looking for them, you’ll find that there are quite a few to select from. Compared to the bigger bulbs they are fairly inexpensive and often multiply rapidly, so you can start off with a few and soon have a lot. Rodents do eat them, but I haven’t had much trouble with that, and if you are in an area where you will have trouble, the bulbs are small enough that it’s not such a chore to bury them in wire mesh baskets. Which will show you their flowers first depends a lot on where they are planted. Those planted on the sheltered south side of my house flower much earlier than those on the exposed north side.
Iris reticulata a tiny Iris with grass-like leaves and flowers in shades of blue and purple, with a splash of yellow or white, planted in that sheltered south location are the first flowers I see – this year on February 6th. They are followed closely by Crocus sieberi and Crocus chrysanthus, my favorites of the species Crocus. These are not the big yellow, purple and striped Crocus vernus that flower much later. These are small and close to the ground, in pale shades of cream and lilac. Chionodoxa is next to appear, its brilliant blue star shaped flowers highlighted by a bright white center. The Muscari (Grape Hyacinth) is the last out of my early bulbs but it’s worth the wait. Last fall I planted several color combinations from white, pale blue, blue-black to the usual bright blue, and the honey bees found them in March. Dozens of bees buzzed about them whenever the days were warm enough, and I spent a lot of mornings drinking tea and watching. Out in that cold north garden, the Scilla and the Pushkinia break through at about the same time, both with small spikes of tiny blue or white flowers, but by now, other flowers have also started and the magic is not as compelling. I think I’ll have to plant some of them on the south side next fall. I have all summer to think about it.