Bees Bring The Garden To Life

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Bee Loved Blossoms

On Friday, I sat by a large flowering currant bush, just beginning to bloom. Last year, this shrub was alive with bumblebees. This year, I waited for a scarily long time before spotting even one. Today, the rosy blossoms were getting a little more love, but it’s sobering to recognize the signs that bees and other pollinators are truly in trouble. For me, a garden without that contented murmur of bees and birds and bugs of many kinds is missing a vital element. There may be flowers galore but the sounds and movements of birds bees and butterflies are what really bring a garden to life. So what can we do to help? Apart from the obvious—do not use poisons on your garden or lawn—the most important thing we can do is grow flowers. Lots and lots of flowers. Long blooming, lush, and nectar- and pollen-rich flowers. In fact, it’s our duty as concerned citizens of the world.

I for one am willing to shoulder the burden, how about you? For starters, I’m making sure that every garden I plant or work in is well stocked with pollinator pleasers. Like what? Among my favorite spring blossoms are wallflowers. Profusely loaded with diminutive but richly fragrant flowers, this classic English border plant has enchanted people and pollinators alike for hundreds of years (if not more). In my gardens, there are always bees merrily at work on Erysimum linifolium Bowles Me Away. Compact and bushy, these sturdy plants keep on keeping on clear through mild winters. I especially love the color-changing blossoms of Cheers Sun-Kissed Amethyst, which shift from sunny yellow to soft coral to copper rose to lavender. Cheerful, hard working, and easy to please, these tough perennials tolerate afternoon shade and, if well mulched, only need watering during the hottest of dry spells.

Bumblebee Candy

Foxgloves are especially favored by the slow, gentle bumblebees, which bustle into those long tubular blossoms and back out butt first, fluffy with pollen. Shade tolerant, ignored by deer, foxgloves are delightful in woodsy settings and shining stars in ornamental borders. Digitalis purpurea Pam’s Choice is a compact form around two feet high, its branching stems loaded with creamy trumpets, their throats generously splashed with merlot. The effect is very showy, carrying clear across the garden and attracting bees as well as people.

I’ve been growing some of the relatively new sterile hybrid foxgloves for a few years now and am very favorably impressed. Despite their sterility, they apparently produce enough nectar and/or pollen to be attractive, since they are always lively with bees and butterflies. Because they don’t set seed, these are abundant producers that stay in bloom far longer than their ordinary Digitalis purpurea cousins. Indeed, happy plants may be in flower from May into September or even October in mild years. Of these, Digitalis hybrida Polkadot Princess is one of the most vigorous, its soaring stems loaded with plump trumpets the color of American Beauty roses from May until frost.

Foxy Ladies

Another sterile hybrid, Digitalis x Hybrida Foxlight Ruby Glow is a knockout, its bushy foliage punctuated with spires of luscious raspberry trumpets with dramatic coppery orange throats. Not just bumblebee candy, this one also pulls in hummingbirds galore as well as thirsty butterflies. Great for cutting gardens, Ruby Glow is also a stand-out in any bed or border. So are the beautiful Polkadot sisters, sterile long bloomers all. Besides that pink princess, there’s Polkadot Pandora, offering great sheaves of rosy peach-to-apricot flower spikes all summer, and Polkadot Pippa, whose peachy blossoms are licked with cherry red, with sunny yellow throats.

Bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies all love the penstemon family, with slimmer but still tubular blooms above dense clumps of slender foliage. Like foxgloves, penstemons are drought tolerant and not interesting to deer but they prefer full sun to shade. Penstemon hybrida Midnight sends up spike after spike of glowing purple blossoms from June into October. Taller, cheerful Cherry Glow (3-4 feet) has sage green foliage and clean red flowers with white throats striped like runways to guide in the bees. More compact but just as floriferous, Penstemon x mexicali Red Rocks is never without an attendant flock of pollinators as long as the sun is out. The rosy flowers have creamy throats veined in warm pink, on 12-15 inch stems over deep green foliage.

All The Buzz

All kinds of pollinators are drawn to the frilly flowers of motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), brought to America by colonial bee keepers. Most garden forms boast tawny orange blossoms stacked on sturdy stems 2-3 feet high, but one form, Grobbebol, has pinky-lavender flowers and especially ruffled foliage. Bees and many other pollinators are irresistibly drawn to the airy-fairy flowers of Gaura lindheimeri, aka butterfly flower or wand flower. This prairie native has numerous excellent selected forms, including the dainty Belleza White, which tosses out her fluttering flowers on arching stems up to 2 feet high and wide. Passionate Blush is similar, with pink pink PINK flowers that attract small girls like magnets. Passionate Rainbow combines bicolor blossoms, chalky pink with rosy hearts, with tricolor variegated foliage, blending deep green, dark rose, and ivory. All are terrific repeat bloomers if deadheaded when production starts to slow down in midsummer.

And what’s a pollinator-friendly garden without beebalm? If old fashioned forms are a little too aggressive and apt to wander for polite circles, Monarda didyma Sugar Buzz Rockin’ Raspberry earns a spot in the most proper of places. Its rich raspberry-magenta flowers are as frothy as a spume of champagne, and just as heady to our bee buddies. Happy in full sun or part shade, this improved selection boasts a pleasing amount of vigor and deep green, mildew-resistant foliage as well as a long and abundant season. Onward!

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