If you’d just flown from another continent, you would need some nectar. In spring, butterflies arrive in the UK after a mind-boggling flight from Africa or southern Europe, and require food to revive them. Likewise hoverflies – 4 billion of them, arriving from Europe – must find sustenance after their journey. And our native bees are busy feeding and building nests in the shelter of our gardens. With wildflower forage in decline (for instance 97% of flower meadows have been lost), gardens are vital sources of nectar.
Here is our guide to ten of the best spring plants to provide pollinators with an essential food source – and add colour and variety to your garden.
Small tree: Prunus ‘The Bride’
In spring, this compact flowering cherry is a mass of snow white flowers that lure bees and butterflies. Throughout April, the tree’s bare branches are coated in the single white flowers that have a central raspberry red flush; then in autumn, the leaves take on fiery tints. Grow in well-drained soil in sun. H2-4m.
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Ground cover perennial: Trachystemon orientalis
An excellent ground cover plant for shade (even dry shade), the early-flowering borage is also a rich food source. In March and April, the small blue flowers with purple-pink spikes are a-buzz with contented bees. H30-60cm.
Shade-loving perennial: Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’
Bees visit the glowing blue flowers that adorn this lungwort from March to May. Plant in semi-shade or shade, ideally in the dappled light near deciduous trees and shrubs, in humus-rich, moist, well-drained soil. H30-40cm.
Flowering shrub: Ribes sanguineum ‘King Edward VII’
The loud whir of bumblebees surrounds this ornamental currant when it flowers in April. The racemes of shocking pink flowers dangle amongst the aromatic leaves. It can be grown as an informal hedge in well-drained soil in sun. H1.5-2m.
Dwarf evergreen shrub: Heather, Erica x darleyensis ‘Furzey’
Bees love the nectar-rich flowers of this heather, which form a mat of lilac pink during winter and spring. Grow in well-drained, neutral to acid soil in sun. H30-45cm.
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Evergreen perennial: Ajuga tenorii, Princess Nadia
This new bugle has young pink evergreen leaves that mature to green and cream, and purple blue flowers that attract butterflies in spring. It appreciates moisture-retentive, well-drained soil, so dig in organic matter (such as compost) on planting in semi-shade. H10-20cm.
Biennial: Honesty, Lunaria annua
Honesty is a biennial, which means it flowers in its second year. As well as the mauve purple flowers feeding butterflies in May, the plant provides a place for the Orange Tip to lays its eggs. The lunar disc-shaped seed pods are enchanting in autumn and winter. Grow in moisture-retentive, well-drained soil in semi-shade. H75-90cm.
Herbaceous perennial: Primula vulgaris
The good old primrose delights us in spring when it blooms en masse, on the banks of hedgerows. At home, create the same effect, planting generously around deciduous trees and shrubs. H10-15cm.
Bulb: Muscari ‘Jenny Robinson’ (syn. ’Baby’s Breath’)
Butterflies like the sweetly scented, ice blue flowers of this grape hyacinth, which bloom in April and May. Grow in pots or sunny, well-drained borders. H15-20cm.
Evergreen shrub: Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Green Ginger’
This variety of rosemary has ginger-scented, evergreen leaves and nectar-rich blue flowers that bloom in late spring and early summer. It can be grown as a low hedge to line a path in well-drained, sun-baked soil. H50cm-1m.
Where to buy
Plants that aren’t organic can contain chemicals that harm wildlife. But there are an increasing amount of suppliers that grow organically, including Penlan Perennials , peat free plants and Bee Happy Plants.