For some reason, I feel that every time I think about what to plant for pollinators, the list of plants that comes to me is one full of herbaceous ones… however, it is odd that this is the case, because it’s not like our region lacks larger plants (e.g., trees, large shrubs) that are both fully able to support pollinators while also supporting other biodiversity and even contributing to flood and rain management! And because if we’re interested in going the large(r)-plant path, we need a bit of planning, in today’s post I would like to present some native shrubs and trees that are great resources for our pollinators. This way, you can start planning where to get them for planting in late winter to early spring.
Why consider trees and shrubs for pollinators?
Large perennial plants such as trees and shrubs have many characteristics that make them very attractive to any pollinator-friendly person in our region. Indeed, while there are many of these plants that act as wonderful food resources for many pollinators (both adult and larval stages), these larger plants represent long(er)-term and abundant resources that can serve different aspects of our ecosystem: they provide shelter and food for birds, they can assist in managing stormwater runoff, retain soil, reduce surface temperatures by their shading abilities, and provide structural complexity to our landscapes. Trees especially are a key component of creating climate-resilient landscapes. In fact, one of Maryland’s climate change mitigation goals is to grow 5 million more trees by 2031!
Planting trees is not necessarily expensive
From a financial perspective, although these plants may be costlier to obtain than the smaller herbaceous ones, there is a multitude of incentives, state vouchers, and programs that strongly reduce or sometimes completely cover the costs of obtaining them. In Maryland, for example, the state provides incentives through the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (discounts to be used at nurseries; all details here), the PG County Rain Check program or the TreeMontgomery program, city incentives, and free tree plantings (e.g., see College Park’s here). In all of these programs, a lot of trees native to our region are covered. If you would like to participate in any of these programs, make sure to check the specific tree lists covered by each (also, see this list of recommended native trees for the state of Maryland). Note that these programs I mentioned here are just a few of the many that exist; if you’re interested in this, make sure to check your city, county, and state resources!
What to plant?
I hope by now I have at least made you curious about the idea of choosing trees and shrubs for pollinators. Below, I made a very small selection of a couple of plants that appear in the native lists, and that are great for pollinators. Let’s take a look at them.
Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Tulip trees are a great native plant that can serve as a great pollinator resource. This tree is in the same family as Magnolia trees. It can reach a large size and it displays stunning yellow and orange flowers. This tree grows fast and is large (considered the tallest native tree in the eastern USA, along with sweetgums), so it can be a good choice for large spaces where a canopy is wanted relatively quickly. The flowers produce a lot of nectar, which attracts a massive number of pollinators. This makes it kind of fun to stand under the tree on warmer days during the blooming time: the buzzing coming from the tree is pretty impressive. Here are some more details on the conditions preferred by this tree.
American linden or basswood (Tilia Americana)
This tree can reach relatively large sizes, and when it grows to full size it has a very rounded canopy. I personally love this tree, because of the fact that I feel it’s a “social” tree: one can sit with friends under its shade on hot summer days, and just enjoy the life it hosts and the cool breeze it forms under it. Once the season is coming to an end, this tree’s leaves turn a lovely yellow. The flowers of this tree are small and not very colorful, but they are extremely fragrant and full of nectar, which makes them a great magnet for pollinators. You can learn more about the requirements of this tree at Virginia Tech Dendrology.
Hawthorns (Crataegus phaenopyrum and C. viridis)
These are mid-size trees that also sustain a variety of fauna through their flowers, fruits, and bird nest-friendly thorny branches. Their flowers are white, have a typical Rose-family structure (like those of cherry trees), and are attractive to bees, syrphids, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Besides being great for fauna, the two species do well in urban environments, because they both tolerate a wide variety of conditions. Here at pollenlibrary.com and on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center website you can learn more about each of these species.
Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus)
This small tree/tall shrub is a great addition to green spaces, and is ideal for hedgerows or just as a stand-alone plant. I am always surprised by the super cool shape of the flowers of this plant, which have very elongated petals that create long white fringes. These flowers attract bees and other pollinators, which come to collect some of the nectar that is produced. This plant is usually dioecious, meaning that one individual plant harbors either male or female flowers, but rarely both. This plant is ideal for areas that receive a lot of sun, because it is under those conditions that it will do best (although it can do fine in less-sunny areas as well). You can learn more about this plant by visiting this website.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis)
Although all of them can provide very good resources for pollinators, I picked this one to showcase because this species grows relatively fast and does not get too large. This is indeed a larger shrub that has beautiful white flowers, and later on, delicious small berries. Because of all this good stuff, the flowers are visited by many insects, and the fruits are favorites of birds (so you’ll have to win over them if you want to get at the fruits! 😉 ). Here and on the University of Maryland Extension website, you can learn a bit more about this cool plant.
By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.
Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!