• Maureen Little

Bee Plant of the Month - September 2020

My Bee Plant of the Month for September is neither a single plant, nor do the ones I’ve chosen flower in September. So what’s going on? Well now is a good time to plant spring flowering bulbs. (I’m also including corms under the umbrella term of bulbs, although strictly speaking they are different.)

So rather than wait until spring and point out all the lovely flowers that you could have planted, I thought I would suggest a few bulbs that you can plant now, many of which are ideal food sources for bees and other pollinators at a time when there is often little else to sustain them.

Before we look at the individual bulbs, let’s spend a few moments going through the planting procedure. Generally speaking, all bulbs should be planted three times their own depth so if you have a 5cm bulb then it should be covered with 10cm of soil. But – there’s always a ‘but’ - always be guided by the planting instructions that you get when you buy your bulbs: the grower or supplier has years of experience, so take notice of what they say.

A friend of mine who has a large garden (lucky person!) planted several thousand bulbs a few years ago. The first spring they flowered well, but thereafter the flowering rate diminished until this year all that appeared was leaves and a few scrawny flowers. She was bitterly disappointed. She had bought the bulbs from a reputable source and had done everything according to the book. Except for one thing. She hadn’t planted them deeply enough. Instead of planting them three times their own depth she had just pushed them into her lovely loam soil and scraped a bit of earth over the top. It was a costly mistake in terms of time, effort and money. If you think you are planting too deeply, you are probably planting just deep enough. You can also plant up some containers with bulbs, either to have as a feature in their own right, or to slot into your border to provide a bit of colour next spring.

So let’s have a look now at some pollinator-friendly bulbs which, simply for convenience, I’ve listed in alphabetical order. Incidentally, all of them can also be planted in pots or containers.

First up is Camassia. There are several species of Camassia, all of which are good for pollinators: it’s the nectar they go for. Depending on the species, the spikes of blue or white flowers will reach a height of between 60cm and 90cm, so they’re not exactly retiring in their demeanour. In fact, they look stunning when planted in a meadow-type situation. They’ll grow in sun or part shade, although like any other plant that is attractive to pollinators, they (the pollinators) will head for the ones in sun first. Give them moist but not waterlogged soil – err on the side of free-draining soil if in doubt – and they will flower from April to June, again depending on the species. Camassia are both hardy and perennial, so once planted they will produce flowers year-on-year.

Second is Crocus. If I could plant only one spring-flowering bulb, Crocus would be it. I knew for a while that it was good for pollinators, and particularly bees, and this was overwhelmingly confirmed when, one spring morning, I visited a park (see picture) near where we used to live. It was a carpet of Crocus which had naturalised, and it was simply thrumming with bees of all sorts. I’m yet to discover if one species of Crocus is any better for pollinators than another, but it does appear to be the purple-flowered ones which are most popular. Don’t be surprised if you find a queen bumblebee tucked up in one of the flowers having a snooze – the flowers close overnight and make a snuggly bed for a tired bee.

Eranthis hyemalis, or winter aconite comes next. These are some of the earliest flowering bulbs whose blossoming more-or-less coincides with the emergence of the first bumblebees from their winter sojourn, providing them with an essential source of nectar and pollen. Eranthis aren’t statuesque, growing only to about 10cm but what they lack is stature they make up for in their dazzling, sunshine colour. They favour part-shade and do particularly well under trees and shrubs where they will gradually spread if they are not disturbed. If you do want to move them to a different location, this is best done ‘in the green’, before the leaves die back.

Next is Galanthus, snowdrops. I for one take the name snowdrop for granted but it struck me as I was writing this that it really is one of those words which describes the object exactly – the little flower does indeed look like a drop of snow. But I digress. Galanthus is one of the earliest flowering of all bulbs showing itself from January onwards in an average year. This may be way too early for a number of pollinators, but some will be out and about during late winter looking for food if the weather is clement enough. If the Galanthus like where they have been planted, they will form vast natural drifts over the years – a beautiful sight which some garden owners share when they open their gardens to the public. Like Eranthis, Galanthus are best planted or transplanted ‘in the green’.

There are a number of Muscari species, but it is the traditional Muscari armeniacum which seem to attract most pollinators, especially bees. Otherwise known as grape hyacinth, these little clusters of bells grow to about 20cm in height and can cope with just about any soil type, in sun or part shade. A word of warning, however – they do naturalise very easily, so if you don’t have much room, plant them in pots.

My next two bulbs that should be planted in the autumn, but which aren’t spring-flowering (they bloom a fraction later in the year) are two that I wouldn’t be without in a pollinator-friendly garden. The first is Allium. I have waxed lyrical about these in another blog post (click here) so I shan’t expand here. Suffice it to say that if you’re serious about attracting bees to your garden, you need Allium!

I have to admit to being a bit confused over the name of my next bulb. I have always known it as Nectaroscordum siculum subsp. bulgaricum, but on the RHS website it’s Allium siculum subsp. dioscoridis. The Kew database has both listed as synonyms. Ho hum. Anyway, whatever you know it as, it’s common name of ‘honey garlic’ sums up its attributes a treat – it does indeed smell of garlic, but at the same time it’s a magnet for bees, and honeybees in particular. It’s statuesque, with its stems, topped by floppy bells, growing up to 1.2m. It will grow in sun or part shade in just about all kinds of soil as long as they aren’t waterlogged. And if you see the flowers standing erect rather than drooping, you know they have been pollinated.

You may be wondering why I haven’t included Narcissus or Tulipa in my list. It’s true that some - especially the simple species of each - are good for pollinating insects, many of the hundreds, if not thousands, of named varieties have been developed with a view to looking good to us humans, rather than being of benefit to pollinators. That’s not to say we shouldn’t grow them – they just won’t attract many of our buzzy friends.

So there we have it - a few bulbs to plant now to help our pollinators next year.