by Tim Kane

There are some indispensable shrubs that are must haves for early pollinator support in the home landscape. Of course, size and exposure can limit use of some of these great woody plants but here are some examples of woody shrubs that provide a great source of pollen along with other support that is crucial to native birds and pollinators.

Lindera benzoin - northern spicebush

Lindera or spicebush is, perhaps, one of the least noticed, least used native woody ornamentals in the home landscape. Admittedly, it would not be high up on the list of woodies to use as a foundation planting but there are a number of areas of the home it can be used to outstanding effect.

Lindera is an understory plant in the wild, perfectly at home growing near or under trees in the woods and adept at tolerating moist soil areas. It is a very early bloomer displaying small, yellowish flowers in abundance in March and April. Early pollinators like native bees are all over this plant and its is a host plant for some notable butterflies and moths including the Spicebush Swallowtail, the Promethea Silk Moth and the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Native birds like Vireos, Thrushes, Tanagers and Robins love it for the food it provides including the red berries borne by the female spicebush (male and female flowers are on separate plants).

Spicebush is a sizable plant growing 12 to 15’ tall with an upright form that is perfect for grouping and naturalizing. Its fragrant leaves, twigs and fruit have been used for tea production and its green foliage provides a striking yellow color splash in the fall landscape. Lindera has become popular for using in wetland mitigation jobs and rain garden plantings commercially but it really is a shrub that can help make the home landscape an early pollinator paradise.

Salix discolor - pussy willow

Yes, the pussy willow, one of the most well known plants to consumers, is also one of the best early pollinator supporting plants. Its early, catkin bloom in late February through March is a vital early nectar source for native bees like Mason Bees and Mining Bees along with the non-native but incredibly important Honey Bees. It is also an important host plant for butterflies and moths like the Mourning Cloak, Viceroy and Crecopa Moth, supporting their larval form and life cycle.

Where there are caterpillars there are native birds feeding on those caterpillars with Flycatchers, Warblers, Chickadees and Goldfinches among the many birds that feed and nest in pussy willow plants. Doug Tallamy, author of Nature’s Best Hope, places a high value on Salix as a host and pollinator support plant and you should, too as long as you have the right place to plant it! Pussy willow is a fast growing, wide ranging plant that is definitely not suited for a small space! Give it room to move so it does not move you out of your yard. It loves moisture and can thrive in a troublesome wet spot in your landscape.

Hamamelis vernalis - witch hazel

Spring blooming witchhazel, a native plant in the lower Midwest, and a plant that grows throughout the eastern U.S., may be the earliest of early pollinator supporting shrubs. Its bloom, featuring yellow flowers that look like a bundle of strap-like petals, is usually open during the first warm spell in winter which means color even in February many years. Its lightly fragrant bloom gets numerous visits during this time from a roster of native bees and wasps that are enjoying the fleeting winter warmth.

The real value of this witchhazel in the native landscape is later in the spring and summer since this plant is a host plant for over 60 species of moths and butterflies including the Large Lace Border Moth, the Definite Tussock Moth and the Funerary Dagger Moth just to name a few. As always, any host plant means the presence of a raft of native birds, feeding on these larvae so they can raise their broods and have a great place for nesting and cover.

Vernal witchhazel is a beautiful, easy care landscape plant that will get in the 10 to 15’ tall and wide size range so give it some rooms to grow! Its deep green foliage has a hint of blue color and, when the cool weather of fall creeps in, that foliage turns a brilliant yellow for a great autumn show.