Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Has the Bee Seen Her Shadow?

 Winter aconite: Eranthis hyemalis
Buttercup family: Ranunculae

It's three days before Valentine's and the Winter Aconite is just beginning to bloom in VanDusen Gardens. Last week we had a cold snap that caught some plants by surprise. The hellebores look like they've been trampled by a herd of yaks. The snowdrops are just beginning to rally and the hardy tulips are just about to bloom. Let's face it, mid February is a a depressing time in the garden. Even the kale looks sad, and it takes a lot to deflate kale. The spots in Vandusen garden are the witch hazel and winter aconites, which are especially comforting bursts of sunshine yellow on grey foggy mornings.

Winter aconites, which look like buttercups on steroids, are a phenological indicator that spring is about to take the stage. Depending on the year, the flowers can herald the beginning of the honeybee season as the temperature warms to 15 degrees Celsius and the bees begin to take a few exploratory foraging flights. An Old World Plant from southern Europe the phenology of this winter bloomer is not meant for the life cycles north American bees. If you plant it as a bee plant here in the Pacific Northwest, you are taking a chance that the blooms will finish before the bees do any serious foraging, but it is worth cultivating near honeybee hives, particularly under trees where other things are difficult to grow including horse chestnuts, beech, oak and sycamore. The plant has toxins which make it unsuitable for a children's garden, but make it a plant deer will leave alone. The occasional early-emerging bumble bee queen will also benefit from the pollen and nectar in these flowers. It all depends on whether or not the bee has "seen her shadow."

These flowers will thrive under trees and bushes in moist soil rich with leaf litter that will get the morning sun. They will naturalize around the bases of trees, spreading by seeds and rhyzomes. They will be best buddies with scilla and bluebells, but will crowd out crocuses. Plant the tubers at the end of the blooming season when the foliage is dying down. A neighbour might be able to give you some that have been divided from their own garden. After they bloom, you must not cut the foliage, but leave it to die down and turn yellow before any intervention with clippers. Once it goes to seed, you can help it spread by collecting and scattering the seeds.

And speaking of seeds, just a reminder that Seedy Saturday is just around the corning and you know there's going to be pussy willows for sale--also manure, which makes some folks just as happy.

 It's almost Valentine's Day, and time to remind each other of the dark side of the cut flower industry: abusive labor practices, unchecked pesticide use, and excessive carbon emissions. This Valentine's Day,  show you love for the bees by giving you sweetie seasonally appropriate gifts: packets of bee garden seeds and bouquets of local pussy willows, witch hazel and (forced) forsythia. Instead of eating those traditional bland "fresh" strawberries, why not opt for seasonal treats made with beets, chocolate and blood oranges? We use use bees and roses as motifs on our valentines that say "bee my honey" and "I'm sweet on you."  I hate to break it to you honey, but baby it's too cold outside for roses. Even the brave little snowdrops are suffering after that cold snap we had. Bees love pussy willows, so let's change it up--forget the roses and show your love for an early spring plant that supports our sweet pollinators. But don't forget to leave some catkins for the bees!

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