Pollinator Plants For The Early Spring Garden

BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. -- As the weather warms in early spring, overwintering pollinators wake up from their long winter’s nap, hungry and ready to forage in your garden. What do you have to offer them? How about some early blooming trees and shrubs?

Pussy Willow – a valuable bee plant.

Pussy Willow – a valuable bee plant.

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Woody Plants for Pollinators

We rarely think of woody plants as pollinator plants, but some native flowering trees and shrubs are important resources in early spring, especially to some species of bees. Blooming at a time when much of the garden is still asleep, these woody plants provide nectar and/or pollen before much else is available. Nectar is the primary energy source for bees, while pollen provides the protein essential to brood rearing and the development of young bees.

Native Maples

Our native maples are some of the earliest woody plants to bloom in the spring. Once you realize what they are, maple blooms are quite conspicuous, but the flowers go unnoticed by most of us. Maple flowers are enticing to hardy bees, like European honeybees and native bumblebees, which can tolerate the cool weather of early spring.

Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) and Box Elder (Acer negundo) are all native maples that offer a welcome meal of nectar and pollen to early emerging bees. Their flowers blossom before their leaves appear, then, later in the spring, maple leaves serve as larval food for the beautiful Cecropia Moth – the largest silkmoth in North America.

Native Willows

The blooms of native willows are important food sources for bees that are active in early spring. Like some native plants, willows are either male or female, but both sexes have blooms. Male flowers offer nectar and pollen, while female flowers only provide nectar.

Pussy Willow (Salix discolor), Black Willow (Salix nigra), and Peach-leaved Willow (Salix amygdaloides) are just a few willows native to our region. All of these plants prefer moist soil in a sunny location. By planting these willows you will get a bonus - they are host plants for Mourning Cloak and Viceroy butterflies.


Another early forage source for bees are our native Serviceberries. Showy white flowers appear before the leaves do, enticing bees, especially native bees, with both nectar and pollen. You may know these plants by another common name – Juneberries – so called for the delicious, edible fruit that appears in June. Make sure to eat some of these tasty berries, reminiscent of blueberries but with a hint of almond, before songbirds feast on them.

If you have never seen Cedar Waxwings, intriguing tan, Cardinal-like birds with black masks, you will see plenty of them if you plant their favorite fruit – Juneberries. Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), Allegheny Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis), Shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis) and Apple Serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora) are all good choices for hungry bees, birds, and humans.

Make sure that your landscape has the resources that nature needs this spring. Start by planting some early blooming trees and shrubs for pollinators.

Kim Eierman, a resident of Bronxville, is an environmental horticulturist and Founder of EcoBeneficial! When she is not speaking, writing, or consulting about ecological landscapes, she teaches at the New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Native Plant Center and Rutgers Home Gardeners School.

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