Thursday, 13 December 2012

Frozen beauties: Flowers in winter

The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) has nectar-rich flowers
Now in winter pollinator activity has nearly ceased. With the exception of the winter active bumblebee Bombus terrestris which is still visiting flowers on milder days in some urban areas and some winter active moths most other pollinators are inactive or hibernating in some form or another (watch this space for a more detailed essay about what pollinators do in winter, coming in January).

Nonetheless, there are still flowers to be found, some even providing much needed nectar for winter active pollinators. The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) and winter-flowering Mahonia (Mahonia x media) are both flowering in winter and produce enough nectar to help winter active bumblebees sustain their colonies.

Mahonia x media flowering in winter
Mahonia flowers have a wonderful scent

Winter active Bombus terrestris enjoying Mahonia flowers
Flies are also visiting the Mahonia flowers
Viburnum tinus (picture below) is another winter-flowering shrub with small pinkish fragrant flowers which are visited by pollinators on milder days.

In late winter the first snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are peeking through the snow which is always a delight to see. They do not depend on insect pollination and mainly spread by bulb division.

Snowdrops can push trough frozen soil with hardened leaf tips

Some autumn-flowering plants can flower right until December and look beautiful on frosty days even if they are of not much use anymore for pollinators.

A frosted rose flower
Michaelmas daisies (Aster sp.) in the early morning sunshine
Penstemon flowers after a frosty night
Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

Even after the flowering is finished, the seed heads of some flowers look very attractive and can be an interesting feature in the winter garden. The seeds of many plants can provide a natural food source for birds and insects like to overwinter in the hollow stems. So when you tidy up your garden in autumn please do not cut dead stems and seed heads, as they can still be of value to wildlife and your garden will look much more interesting.

Hogweed (Heracleum sp.) seed heads on a frosty morning
Frosted teasel (Dipsacus sp.) seed head
Phlomis seed heads left uncut are an attractive sight
Seed heads of rudbeckia
Winter can be a daunting month with cold, dark nights and gloomy days, but you can make the most of any sunny day and have a look around outside. Frosty mornings can be enchanting and if we happen to have a mild day look out for winter active pollinators searching for nectar and pollen.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Phacelia tanacetifolia – a great plant for bees

Phacelia makes a pretty addition to an allotment plot
If bees could make a list of their favourite plants to collect nectar and pollen from, I bet phacelia would be on it. A shame it is not very well-known and not planted more often in gardens and allotments in the UK.

Phacelia tanacetifolia is an annual plant and belongs to the borage family (Boraginaceae) together with other good pollinator plants such as borage (Borago officinalis) and viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare). It is native to California, Arizona and Mexico and colonises dry stony hillsides up to 2000 m above sea level. Phacelia is not very frost-hardy and will only survive light frosts but can overwinter in mild areas.

Phacelia as green manure (in the foreground): still looking good in December
Covering empty beds with Phacelia helps bees and your soil
Phacelia has pretty blue flowers which attract lots of bees

The plants have pretty blue flowers and ferny leaves and can be sown from late March to September in almost any garden soil. Slugs and snails tend to ignore the seedlings so if you have problems with these pests Phacelia is the right plant for you. The plant is pretty enough to grow in a flower border, together with other pollinator-friendly annual plants such as Borage (Borago officinalis), Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus and C. sulphureus), Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) and sunflowers (Helianthemum annuum). It can also be grown in small patches between vegetables on your allotment or as a green manure on empty beds which is dug into the soil after flowering. You also don`t have to incorporate it into a rotation plan as Phacelia is not related to any of the vegetables commonly grown in the UK.

 Phacelia looks good with orange Pot marigold and yellow Sunflowers

Phacelia is a prolific self-seeder but never gets invasive as the seedlings are easy to pull out or hoe off. The plant can also cope with dry soil once established so you don`t have to water in summer.

The flowers produce lots of nectar and will attract countless honeybees, bumblebees and other pollinators (the German name for this plant is Friend-of-the-bees or Bee-feast). It is amazing to see how many bees are actually visiting on a sunny day; I often counted up to 30 bees per 1m2 at a time. If sown later in summer Phacelia will flower right until the first sharp frosts and provide welcome food for young bumblebee queens.

Below you can see some pictures of pollinators enjoying the nectar and pollen feast: 

Even hoverflies are attracted to the flowers
A Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) visits the flowers
Phacelia is a great plant for bees
A Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius)
Phacelia pollen is bright blue
An Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) collecting nectar

If you have not grown this plant before, give it a try. Sown as green manure it will help increase soil fertility and you will be rewarded with pretty flowers and lots and lots of pollinators.