Based on their cutting-edge research, scientists at the National Botanic Garden of Wales have revealed a hit-list of recommendations for some of the best spring garden plants, to plant this autumn.
The Botanic Garden’s PhD researcher, Abigail Lowe says: “As pollinating insects emerge on warm days in late winter and early spring, they seek their first meals of the season.
“After hibernating over winter, bumblebee queens need to find nest sites to form new colonies – a very energy-demanding task.
“Most hoverflies and solitary bees overwinter as larvae, beginning their adulthood ‘on the wing’ during spring. And while honeybees stay active during warm days throughout winter, they need to replenish their stores in spring to sustain their developing brood.”
To give these pollinators a head-start, grow flowers in your garden that provide a bounty of sugary nectar and protein-rich pollen. Here are some of the top pollinator plants for spring-time gardens, based on the Botanic Garden’s Saving Pollinators research, led by Dr Natasha de Vere. All can be planted in autumn and early winter.
Abigail added: “Importantly, these plants need to be insecticide-free – our Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme will help you. Opt for single-flowered blooms which allow easy access for pollinators.”
This is your guide for turning your backyard into a pollinator haven next spring:
Wallflowers, such as Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’, have an amazingly long flowering season that spans the colder months. A wide array of pollinating insects will forage on them, including solitary bees.
Among the first flowers to appear early in the year, hellebores are a welcome sight for pollinators. Pools of nectar are held within nectaries at the base of the flowers and the flowers’ stamens offer an abundance of pollen.
Comfrey is in the borage family – a real all-rounder for pollinators. Short- and long-tongued bumblebees, as well as honeybees and hoverflies will visit the tubular flowers of this plant. Propagate now from seed or from root cuttings, or buy as dormant potted plants. Choose a site where the plant can be kept in-check, as it can be invasive.
Grape hyacinth (Muscari)
These spring-flowering bulbs are a favourite for honeybees and are perfect for a pollinator-friendly pot. When sourcing bulbs, buy organic to ensure they are free from pesticide residues and safe for pollinators.
A perfect choice for dappled shade or a pot. The cup-shaped flowers are enjoyed by honeybees, bumblebees and hoverflies. Choose from the white-flowered native Anemone nemorosa, Anemone blanda in shades of blue, white or pink and Anemone × lipsiensis in pale yellow.
Colourful swathes of crocuses in spring are a welcome sight. In particular, the purple varieties such as Crocus tommasinianus are often sought out by bees and hoverflies searching for food after winter. Plant in a sunny, well-drained spot to get the best results.
Snowdrops are one of the first signs that winter is ending, with blooms seen as early as January. They provide a vital nectar and pollen source for emerging pollinators such as honeybees and queen bumblebees. Bulbs should be planted in the ground immediately to prevent drying out and will establish easily. Ensure you add some drainage in the form of grit to the planting areas to stop the bulbs from rotting.
Apples, cherries and plums (Malus and Prunus)
Most varieties of apple, plum and cherry need cross-pollination to produce fruit. Luckily, the spring blossom of these trees is loved by a range of pollinators including honeybees and solitary bees. The wide open flowers are also accessible to hoverflies which, unlike bees, lack a long proboscis. Plant container-grown plants now, and bear root plants once dormant, and the leaves have dropped.
Willows (Salix spp.)
The catkins produced by willows are packed full of pollen and nectar. Cuttings or rods root easily and can be bought online in winter. If you have a small garden, try coppicing, where a proportion of stems are removed each year but be sure to leave some old enough to flower. There are also low-growing alpine species, such as the native dwarf willow (Salix herbacea).
The early flowers of Pulmonaria provide nectar and pollen to bees when little else is available. The colourful, tubular flowers are enjoyed by many species but it is particularly favoured by the hairy-footed flower bee, Anthophora plumipes. Good for dappled or full shade, these plants will naturally spread providing a lovely addition to a border.
• The National Botanic Garden of Wales recently launched its Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme which guarantees that eligible plants are loved by bees and other pollinating insects, don’t contain synthetic insecticides and are grown in peat-free compost.
• It is the first pollinator plant logo scheme in the UK to be backed by DNA-barcoding science and is currently being rolled out to growers and nurseries. It aims to prevent pollinator decline and benefits other wildlife such as hedgehogs, sparrows and frogs
Feel free to download free-to-use, copyright-free images of all the 10 plants listed in this article. Simply click the image and save.