Plant Wildlife Friendly Spring Bulbs

It really is an absolute joy to see the first bulbs of spring bursting into life in early spring, sometimes even pushing their way through a dusting of snow.  Leaves of daffodils and snowdrops emerge from the frozen earth as early as December, but it is the first hint of colour from fresh new flowers that really brings a breath of spring to the garden.  These useful plants, once their petals have opened, can literally be lifesavers for a range of insects, but especially for bumblebees and honeybees.  Many early flowering bulb species and varieties, whether native or not, supply nectar and pollen to insects freshly emerged from hibernation, as long as the flower shape enables access to insects. Bulbs should be planted in September or October for next spring, so there is still time to add some to your wildlife garden this month. Bulbs are immensely versatile plants, enhancing the garden at a time when a little colour goes a long way and nectar and pollen for insects is a precious commodity in short supply. 

Where possible it is always advisable to plant native if attracting wildlife to your garden is a priority, but there are many non-native bulbs that will support insects.  And here is the first dilemma.  In most gardens the earliest bulb, and one we all wait for with bated breath, is the snowdrop – but is it native or non-native?  There is still controversy amongst botanists about this question so best to ignore them and plant snowdrops anyway, for the sheer pleasure they bring after a cold, dark winter.  Galanthus nivalis, the probable native species, is visited for its pollen by bumblebees and early honeybees if they are out of hibernation, which both bees after the winter.  There is a huge variety of snowdrops available, many of which have plenty of pollen on offer.  Even some of the double petalled beauties (often with the suffix ‘flore pleno’) still have pollen although the flower may be constricted, making it difficult for insects to gain access to the stamens.  Make a note out the varieties you like when you see them in bloom  – if the yellow stamens are visible and a dusting of pollen comes off when you touch them, they may well be a good source of food for these early insects.  Galanthus gracilis and G. ikariae as well as varieties of G. nivalis, are good standbys.

Hot on the heels of the first snowdrop comes Eranthis, the winter aconite.  This is not a native plant but does occur in some wilder places where it has escaped from gardens and become naturalised.  This bright yellow bulb is not to everyone’s taste, but insects love it as the bowl shaped flower means that the stamens are accessible and the pollen available, and it does provide a real splash of early colour.  It bridges the short gap between first snowdrops and the earliest crocuses which are the next bulbs to spring into life in most gardens. We have no true native spring-flowering crocus (the nearest thing is the meadow saffron which is an autumn flowerer) but there are crocuses of all shapes, sizes and colours and with such a variety available there should be something in this genus to suit everyone. Variations on white, cream , yellow and purple can all be found although the paler colours are probably more attractive to insects, while the brighter colours may attract the attention of your local house sparrows!

Not all crocuses open enough to reveal their pollen and of the many types available, those listed in catalogues with Latin names rather than variety names, are generally a better bet than their more flamboyant cousins.  The true species are designed to be pollinated by passing insects and are therefore more likely to appeal to our own native bees. Especially useful species are the mauve Crocus tommasinianus, and C. vernus which are both very early flowering, and C. chrysanthus, especially the pale variety ‘Cream Beauty’.  Varieties of C. chrysanthus have the bonus of a sweet scent, which is very welcome in the early spring. 

The earliest daffodils begin to flower in March and our own two species of native Narcissus are worthy of a place in any garden.  The commoner of the two, N. pseudonarcissus, still survives in the wild in some quantity especially in the border counties between England and Wales and in the Lake District (Wordworth’s ‘host of golden daffodils’).  In some places now this stunning little bulb has colonised roadside verges and if introduced to the garden will seed and spread quite rapidly in fine grass.  The Tenby daffodil, N. obvalaris, is a stronger yellow than the wild daffodil and is found mainly in Pembrokeshire.  Both have valuable pollen for early bees.  If you prefer more glamorous daffs and narcissi, try to choose varieties with a strong scent which can be an indication of a good nectar supply, and those where the stamens are readily visible and loaded with pollen.

Having set your sights on a good variety of the earliest bulbs for next year’s spring garden you need to find a supplier of some of those mentioned.  Many garden centres have a good variety and some on-line suppliers will have wildlife friendly bulbs.  Spring bulbs look at their best when naturalised in drifts in grass so buy as many as you can afford.  The easiest way to achieve this effect is to scatter them randomly on the ground and plant exactly where they fall.  Don’t be tempted to adjust your planting to space them out a little – they will soon lose their random nature.  Once established many will self seed and rapidly colonise areas beneath trees where the soil may be too dry for much else.

Any early flowering plants in our gardens are a delight after the long days of winter, but what you actually plant now to bring colour to the garden in spring can have a real impact on the earliest insect wildlife that needs food.  Choose wisely now and next spring could see your local bees off to a good start.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017