Spring is a critical time of year to provide high-quality pollen and nectar resources to pollinators who are either coming out of winter diapause (mated Bumblebee queens) or are early emergers (like some Andrena bees), or the season’s first generation of pollinators (like small Carpenter bees).

Are you wondering what are good, solid native plants to have on your property for this first wave of pollinators?  Members of a few of our founding groups shared two of their favorite early spring blooming plants (The Chicago Living Corridors is an alliance of several conservation groups in the larger Chicago area. We are always looking for more partners.)

Carol from Wildflower Preservation and Propagation Committee recommends Bloodroot and Wild Blue Phlox.  From Carol:

Bloodroot Photo: Carol Rice

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is a lovely spring ephemeral and is the one I most eagerly anticipate.  Bloodroot is one of the earliest of the woodland plants to come up in the spring.  It is a member of the poppy family, but the only member of its genus in the world. It grows to about 6”, and the flower stalk comes up wrapped in the protection of the leaf. The flower is truly ephemeral –the lovely white petals will often be lost to a strong wind or a rain after only a day or two.

Bloodroot has a fairly extensive native range in North America.  It grows in rich woods, coming up in April or May. It’s seeds are spread by ants, who collect the seed for the fleshy covering (eliasome). Bloodroot has pollen, but no nectar, and is typically pollinated by bees.

The name of the plant is derived from the color of the plant’s juice, which is orange-red.  The juice is a potent dye, and was used by First Nations mixed with animal fat to paint their baskets and faces.  It has had a number of herbal uses.

Wild Blue Phlox with Wild Ginger and native sedges Photo: Carol Rice

Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) is  another favorite.  Lovely on its own, or combined with other spring wildflowers (the glorious yellow celandine poppy – Stylophorum diphyllum – or wild ginger – Asarum canadense), this native plant spreads nicely, so can create a sizable colony. As with other spring woodland flowers, woodland phlox is fairly short, reaching 12” to 15”, with a five-petaled flower.  (Note- people often confuse Dame’s rocket with phlox.  Dame’s rocket only has four petals, and is invasive, not native.)

Hummingbirds visit phlox for its nectar, as do moths, butterflies and long-tongued bees.

Stephanie Walquist from West Cook Wild Ones recommends Pussy Willow (Salix discolor or any native type of Salix) and Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginium).

Pussy Willow
Willow buds with bees Photo: Stephanie Walquist

My willow tree is one of the earliest blooming trees and is dependably busy with visitations from many different pollinators.  I also love that Willows are an important host plant to many species of Lepidoptera.  Through all seasons, many species of birds find food on this tree.

Close-up Virginia Waterleaf
Virginia Waterleaf Photo: Stephanie Walquist

It’s hard selecting favorites, but I also love Virginia Waterleaf.  It spreads nicely though the garden and has beautiful white flowers that supports many early pollinators.  The foliage makes it an attractive addition to the woodland garden all summer, and its beauty belies how hardy it is. I’ve seen it growing in the lawn near woodland edges (along with Spring Beauty) at Morton Arboretum  The leaves are also edible.

Sharp-leaved Hepatica
Sharp-leaved Hepatica Photo: Linda Gurgone

In her woodland garden Linda Gurgone (also of WPPC) loves to see Sharp-leaved Hepatica.  It has evergreen foliage, and the flowers are elegant and important for pollinators.  The flowers are variable in color, ranging from pinks to whites.  It’s a small plant that loves rich woodland environments, so make sure your soil is rich in organic material and leaf “litter.”

Another one of her favorites is Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris).  It gets about 2ft in height and its buttery yellow flowers support early bees.  It can take a range of sun conditions and has lovely heart-shaped leaves that are glossy.

Marsh Marigold
Marsh Marigold Photo: Linda Gurgone

Peggy Simonsen from Citizens for Conservation recommends Redbud and Viburnum dentatum, although any native Viburnum is a wonderful asset for all gardens.

Redbud Photo by Linda Gurgone

Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a small,  understory tree, and is appropriately named for its pink-red flowers in the spring.  Arrowood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) is a beautiful shrub with large white flowers, which become berries relished by birds in the fall.

Do you have a plant (herbaceous, shrub, tree) that you love and recommend for supporting early pollinators?  Let us know in the comments section.  You will be helping people out who are wondering what to plant for bees and butterflies that are early risers in the spring.

Note: The featured photo at the top of the page is Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum), a great plant for Bumblebees.

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