Have you noticed bees and other insects feeding later than usual this year? And did you notice how many were out feeding on warm days last winter? Our roller coaster weather in recent years has affected insects, birds and other animals so that they may be out and about on warmish days in months when we don’t expect to see them. And, of course they are hungry!
Increased activity translates into an increased need for calories. Providing winter forage for pollinators and birds presents gardeners with an interesting challenge. This also brings us round again to that ongoing discussion of ‘native’ vs. imported plants. As a former forensics coach as well as a smitten gardener, I could argue either side of this issue, and have.
But consider that few of our ‘native’ plants actually bloom between November and February in this climate. Most of our winter blooming flowers are actually native to areas of Europe, the Mediterranean region, South Africa, or Asia. Even though the plants may have originated on another continent, they fill an important ecological niche by offering nectar and pollen, sustaining insects who might otherwise starve when they venture out on warming winter days.
Now a native plant advocate could offer the counter argument that many imported plants have adapted so well to our climate, and naturalized so freely, that they sometimes crowd out our indigenous native species. I could list off a half-dozen woody species that bloom in winter or early spring and have done just that. The most interesting conversations continue that way. And while we sit with our tea or toddy and argue the fine points of the question, developers are out with their heavy equipment clear cutting our local forests to widen the roads and plant new neighborhoods and shopping strips.
So let’s not argue, but rather agree to plant consciously and with purpose to sustain the wildlife we have left, absorb as much carbon as possible from the warming air, and to create spots of beauty to cheer and inspire us.
One of my favorite winter blooming shrubs remains the Mahonia aquifolium, which is a North American native shrub that has naturalized in Virginia. There are several species, hybrids and cultivars of Mahonia, and all bloom extravagantly in December through February or early March each year, with plump, edible drupes forming by early summer. Oregon Grape Holly offers shelter and food for birds, nectar for pollinating insects, and has such stiff, sharp leaves that deer and other herbivores don’t graze its leaves. If you plant some of the finer leaf varieties, like ‘M. Soft Caress,’ be prepared for deer to find and sample it. It is a lovely plant if you can protect it.
Helleborus species and hybrids remain a mainstay of my garden both for their bright winter flowers and for their evergreen foliage that serves as a sturdy and effective ground cover year round. Requiring very little maintenance beyond removing old and tattered leaves from time to time, these tough, long-lived plants reliably bloom and feed pollinators from December through late April or early May. These beautiful flowers offer plenty of pollen as well as deep reservoirs of nectar. Each flower may last several weeks, feeding insects over a long period, and then producing seeds.
Nothing grazes a Hellebore because all parts of the plant are poisonous. But their large, glossy leaves remain attractive, often sporting variegation, toothed edges, and interesting form. They filter the air and sequester carbon, provide cool, moist habitat for small animals, and hold our sloping garden. The more Hellebores we grow the less we find tunnels made by voles or moles. Hellebores prefer full to partial shade and mix well with ferns and vining ground covers like Vinca minor, another early spring bloomer.
For sunny areas, consider planting the common Mediterranean evergreen herbs Rosemary and Thyme in Zones 7 and south. Rosemary often blooms with tiny blue or white flowers from November through April, and Thyme usually begins to bloom by March. Both are highly attractive to bees and other pollinators.
Many very early bulbs provide forage for pollinators. Scilla siberica, a European bulb, often pops up and begins opening flowers in February. Its stalk can be covered with many small flowers, opening a few at a time, over a period of weeks. The leaves follow the flower stalk and fade away again by early summer. The bulbs multiply over time. Scilla bloom alongside early Iris histrioides and early Crocus bulbs, also appreciated by hungry pollinators in late winter. Each bulb may send up multiple flower stalks and may be grown under established deciduous trees.
Very little blooms here in January, except for our reliable Hellebores and Violas. The biochemistry of some plants allows them to generate enough heat to survive many hours below freezing, and to bounce back quickly after getting covered with ice and snow. Native to mountainous areas of Europe, colorful little Viola cornuta have been cultivated and hybridized over decades and are easily available each fall in our area. You may know some of them as ‘Johnny Jump-Ups.’ They may be grown from seeds or plugs, or bought full grown in 6″ pots for instant color in fall and winter arrangements. Although Violas are perennials, they don’t survive our summer heat.
The larger Viola tricolor, or pansy, is also native to Europe and has been bred for flower size and color. Panolas are a fairly recent cross between various Viola species, and offer a medium sized flower with beautiful color and form. The plants are lush and offer the impact of a pansy with the hardy habit of a Viola cornuta. These also bloom in late fall and early spring, but may take a break during the coldest months.
Our native Viola labradorica, or American Dog Violet, blooms in mid-spring to early summer. An important host plant for some butterfly species, it forms a beautiful ground cover and blooms in shades of white, purple and blue. Sadly, many homeowners consider these ‘weeds’ when they come up in the lawn and eradicate them. They make a beautiful ground cover, especially under trees, and re-seed themselves freely.
Finally, many trees ‘bloom’ in the winter or very early spring. Though their flowers may seem insignificant to us, they provide important food sources for pollinators. Birds also benefit when they feed on insects attracted to arboreal flowers.
One of the best native shrubs for winter flowers is the Witchhazel, or Hamamelis virginiana. It covers itself in small, sweet blossoms in mid to late winter. Redbud trees also begin to bloom by February, becoming magnets for hungry insects. Several species of Spirea and Viburnum produce early, showy nectar filled flowers.
Flowers on trees may be big and showy like those on Magnolias or tulip trees. But just as often we barely notice them. We may catch a sweet fragrance from an Ilex or Osmanthus, or notice an attractive blur of red or gold around a tree’s canopy before its leaves unfold. But these flowers are very important to wildlife.
No one small, residential garden can support all plants for all purposes. But with a bit of thought and planning, we can all provide some seasonal support for wildlife. Many gardeners faithfully maintain bird feeders during winter months. Fresh water in ponds or birdbaths is also very important for wildlife year-round.
Let’s also remember that by planting some winter blooming woody plants and herbaceous perennials, we can support the web of life in our community while enjoying the beauty and activity winter bloomers add to our own gardens.
Woodland Gnome 2020
Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily photo of something beautiful and a thought provoking quotation.
Many of the insects that are hungry this time of year are not native either. In our region, too many pollinators is interfering with the pollination of the native California poppy. Pollinators, both native and exotic, prefer other bloom, particularly the red and blue gum.
Both are very good points, Tony. Once changes are made to ecosystems, they have infinite implications. In our area, that tinkering began when the first colonists brought daffodils, dandelions, and many other familiar plants with them when they emigrated from Europe. It would be interesting to know how many indigenous plants were simply crowded out, or no longer pollinated, and have disappeared from the Eastern US since the 17th and 18th centuries. And likewise for the western states in the 19th and 20th centuries. Back in the day, collecting and spreading ‘useful’ plants was considered a good thing, whatever their provenance might be.
People really did not know how sensitive ecology can be back then. It all seems so capable of taking care of itself. People who came here considered lumber to be an inexhaustible resource. Technically, it is a renewable resource if properly managed. The problem was that there was no concept of managing something that had always survived on its own. That is part of why the fires are such a problem for us. The formerly harvested forests were never managed. It all gets so confusing nowadays. I intend to continue to enjoy even the exotic plants in my garden (as long as they do not escape).
You know, Tony, our horticultural and environmental understanding isn’t yet complete. It is all evolving. I worry though, to learn that areas of Africa now desert were once lush. But we also know that civilizations living in the Americas were moving species and improving them long before any European colonization- just as they were burning prairies and doing other things to change the landscape. At this point, I’m fascinated by every attempt to sequester carbon through planting gardens/trees/whatever will absorb it. Do you read Horticulture Magazine? This newest issue has a fascinating article on Carbon Gardening, as well as a review of some of the chosen/award-winning plants for 2021. I still believe that nature is a powerful force for self-preservation, and will reclaim the territory if only given the chance. All of the loss of old-growth forest in recent years is very, very troubling, just as is all of the clear-cutting of forest I see on visits to Oregon. I hope that there is massive replanting in progress. Every plant has its own place and purpose. The fun challenge is to pick the best ones for the places we garden. ❤
For many situations, the best thing to do is nothing. In our region, people are constantly wanting to plant things on the banks of the San Lorenzo River, but are then disappointed when a flood takes it away. Much of what they plant is ‘native’ because it is from California, but is not native regionally, so is no more natural than what goes into nearby landscaping. Furthermore, none of it gets established and grows as voraciously as the natural riparian vegetation, which invariably overwhelms installed plants that survive flooding. The irrigation and other infrastructure in unnatural anyway. Planting trees in the Santa Clara Valley and the Los Angeles region is nice for those who live there, but is actually very unnatural. Not many people consider that Los Angeles was naturally a desert, so is now more densely forested than it was naturally. Much of the wildlife that lives there (besides the people) lives there unnaturally. It is impossible to restore the ecology of the region, but removal of as much vegetation as possible would be a good start. Of course, that is inconsistent with what most of us want to think of as environmentalism. Goodness, I should write more about some of this misdirected environmentalism when I get back to writing. People really want to do what they can to ‘help’ the environment, but lack direction. I hope that in the future, people will be able to direct their efforts more appropriately.
And you’ve hit on the issue precisely, Tony- we need to do what is regionally appropriate. And that takes a good deal more knowledge and understanding than most of us begin with. And then gardening as a hobby is about aesthetics- maybe food production- but the value is in making things “look nice.” It is a hobby to grow those plants which interest us, more than a effort to restore the ecosystem to some earlier point in time. There is a real tension there, and you are correct that many gardening efforts are counter-productive from an environmental perspective. I’ll look forward to reading more about it on your site, Tony. I can’t imagine trying to live or garden in an arid or desert region. Thanks for your comments here, WG
Gardening in the desert can be as interesting as gardening anywhere else. Instead of contending with harsh winters, the garden contends with harsh summers. Incidentally, I have been considering purchasing a small home in Trona as a vacation home, not because the desert is so interesting, but because nothing grows in Trona. It is extremely arid, with only about four inches of annual rainfall. It is extremely hot. Furthermore, the soil is so caustically saline that nothing grows there without amendment. For a horticulturist, there are NO distractions (although neighbors grow a few things). It would be an interesting place to get away.
IF I were a gambler, I’d bet that you’d add a pot of something to your vacation desert home within the first year, Tony. Once you have those itchy green fingers…. Helping things grow is good for the spirit.
Nope. I would not be there long enough to take care of it. I would be there only for a month or so at a time. Some parts of Trona are less saline than others, so there are a few things growing in the ground in some situation. If it were an option, I might add some desert fan palms. They do not need much attention though.
Love your mahonia and hope to plant one this year if I can find right spot; btw, thx for your tip @ the deer loving the “the soft caress” cultivar…will scratch that off my wish list!