Bee-friendly plants series: Elderberry

Elderberry comes in two distinct types: black elder, sambucus canadensis (sambuca in the health food store cleanses) and red elder or stinking elder. They bloom and ripen at different times. The stinking elder is a pesky weed-of-the-woods that pops up unwanted when you’re trying to clear land. Its crushed leaves and cut stems give off a rank smell, hence its name. It blooms in April and May and fruits with red berries in June and July. It is food for native bees and wildlife. Black elder blooms in July after most native bushes have flowered. The white flat flower heads, up to ten inches in diameter, contain hundreds of tiny flowers. These flower heads show up against the prevailing green of summer foliage as you are driving by. We used to note the bush locations in our wine making days so we could find them again in September when the fruit was ripe. The black elder has its brief flamboyance and then the flowers drop and it fades into the woodsy wallpaper and if you don’t note where it is you’ll never find it again to pick the fruit, which is great for wine and and apple-elderberry pie. My wife tells me that elder flower cordial made from the fragrant blossoms is now popular because it figured into Megan Markel’s wedding. Get picking …though I’m afraid the bloom may be down by the time this post appears. Honeybees like black elder for the pollen. Around here it is a minor honey plant but a good people plant. Miscellaneous factoids: (1) the hollow stems of both species are good for whistles and pea shooters, (2) pick the clusters of berries and freeze them in a plastic bag. Once they are frozen you can bash them around to detach the berries from the stems for food use.

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Bee-friendly plants series: Birdsfoot trefoil

Birdsfoot trefoil is a member of the pea family. Its bright, cheerful, yellow flowers brighten the edge of many roads…I wonder if the DOT plants it? If so, good on them. A folk name for it is bacon and eggs. It is a perennial and is sometimes used for forage, but I’m guessing it would be more use as a forage before it flowers. Bees love it. It is generous with both nectar and pollen. It has figured as a component in pollination seed mixes I have bought. With its long blooming period …May to September… it is very bee friendly. Seed companies recommend care in preparing a seed bed should you choose to grow birdsfoot trefoil for the bees. The bed should be smooth before broadcasting and rolled after because the seed germinates poorly if it is deeper than 1/4 inch. The good news is that it will thrive in poor soils. This seems like a good plant for honeybees, and with the long bloom period it will help bumblebees complete their life cycle. Identification factoids: the “birdsfoot” comes from the pattern of the seed pods which become apparent after blooming(see picture); the “trefoil” comes from the three leaves (see picture); one identifier is from the fall, the other from the growing season.

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Bee-friendly plants series: Linden

Basswood (linden or lime in England) is a deciduous tree with heart-shaped leaves. It is usually grown as an ornamental or a row tree in our part of the world. It can grow very tall (20-40 m.) and can live for centuries. It is very popular for urban plantings because it is hardy and pollution resistant. The bonus is that it is an excellent bee tree and if there are enough trees (as there often are in cities) a honey crop can be made. It blooms in mid to late July and its fragrance is wonderful … we can step outside on a cool July night into a wonderful perfume. Fifteen years ago I had a planting spree: oaks, ash and basswood. Deer eat the big oak buds and make the trees crooked, the ash died, but the basswoods grew and the deer didn’t touch them (too busy eating oaks?). I’d recommend basswood as a deer proof, pollinator friendly planting …you just have to chase them for a few years with pruners …they sucker a lot and think they want to be a bush and you have to teach them to be a tree. The wood is soft and stable and prized by carvers; the blossoms can be collected for a tea; the honey is flavourful. All is good! Problem: it is hard to grow basswood from seed …most of my plantings came from an ancient tree dude who let me dig volunteers on his property …thank-you George Labelle. I think the MacPhail Woods in PEI sells basswood. The spring frosts seem to have done in our basswood blossoms this year. The pictures in this post come from some beautiful basswood in front of the DeCoste Centre in Pictou. Fashion factoid: the Ainu people of Japan wove clothing from fibres extracted from the inner bark of basswood.

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Bee-friendly plants series: Fireweed

Fireweed is a tall, showy pink-flowered plant of the mid to late summer. It is in bloom now and will be into August. It is a pioneer plant, one of the first to colonize disturbed ground, whatever the cause of the disturbance: road work, construction, clear cut, forest fire. It gets its name from the fact that it will populate land after a fire, helping hold the soil until other pioneer species get started and continue the reclamation. It is a perennial and typically thrives for about five years in disturbed ground until the other species take over. It produces lots of small wind-borne seed that are carried by a kind of wispy, white “wool”. I’ve collected the “wool” in late summer and tried to start them …no success. Bees love it; it is a bridge plant helping bees over the late July, early August dearth until golden rod gets going. In the right circumstances they can make a honey crop off it. A few years after we started beekeeping in 1973, we learned of a smart move by Endel Karmo who was then the provincial apiarist and beekeeper. In 1976 there had been a wildfire that burned 13,000 hectares between Hopewell and Trafalgar –“one of the largest wildfires we’ve ever had,” said Walter Fanning. Endel, I was told, saw an opportunity in the disaster and moved his hives there in subsequent years to make a fireweed honey crop. It pays to pay attention. I’ve also heard of a bee club in BC that has a communal electrified, well-fenced yard in forestry/bear country where members can put their hives out to fireweed. Fireweed is Yukon’s floral emblem – which speaks to its wide distribution and ability to thrive in our short, long-dayed summers. Foody factoid: Centuries ago fireweed leaves were used to make a tea in Russia (think Labrador tea in Canada) and the tea called Russian tea or Ivan Chai was even exported. Wikipedia says it is still consumed in Russia. Makes one want to try it.

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Bee-friendly plants series: Sweet clover

Sweet clover is the bee plant of the week. It comes with white or yellow flowers. The stuff that grows wild, usually along the edges of roads, is white, but when I’ve bought seed to plant it has always been the yellow flower kind. It is a legume (nitrogen fixer) and deep rooted and brings nutrients from deep down up to the surface. It can be used as a green manure, but that involves mowing before blooming and that wouldn’t do the bees any good. It grows up to six feet high and gets its name from the sweet smell of its flowers. (See the poison pill in the factoid entry.) This is the time of year to see it, now through in to August. It is very popular with bumblebees and honeybees and helps them bridge the usual mid-summer dearth. They can make honey off this one. Returning from Amherst today I saw the DOT mowing the verges in Cumberland County and sweet clover was one of the casualties. Too bad. It would be a good plant for anyone who wants to enhance bees of all sorts, especially if you have a substantial area to dedicate to it. It is a biennial …plant it one year; it blooms the next. I checked some prices: OSC (Ontario Seed Company) – 2 kg for $18.99; Northstar Seeds in Sask. $2.99 a lb., but I have bought it locally. Toxicological factoid: The sweet smell comes from “coumarin” in the plant tissue, which, converted by fungi in decayed sweet clover hay, can be toxic to cattle. New cultivars are lower in coumarin and safer for cattle.

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Bee-friendly plants series: Rosa multiflora

Rosa multiflora (rambler rose) is full out now, with its multitude of one inch white flowers at the end of each stem. Each flower can become a small roses hip in the fall. The plant can be variously a free standing bush or a climber, clinging to and overtopping an existing plant. It originates in Asia and is considered an invasive species. It grows very fast; I regularly cut it back in early spring and in a few months “It’s six feet high and rising, Momma” and very pretty. Left alone the new growth will become woody next year and the plant will continue to put out new flower-bearing shoots, but not as vigorously as when it has been pruned or is getting started. The stems can attain six to eight feet of growth in a season and tend to flop over by their own weight giving a hedge-like appearance. And it will make a voluntary hedge- colonizing where you don’t mow and where it can catch the sun. Honeybees like it a lot, for the pollen, I think. Many of them were working the bush before noon, but when I went back in the afternoon to re-take my fuzzy pictures, there were none on it. We took a trip to Keji last weekend and the multiflora was evident in Hants and Kings Counties, but less and less so when one turned south in Annapolis County, and not evident at all in Queens and northern Lunenburg on our return route. I speculate that rosa multiflora’s “invasion” is helped by bees and beekeepers – and wildlife. Last October I remember looking out at dusk to the foot of our lawn where a bush had got started in our planted hedgerow and I counted five grouse in one bush chowing down on the hips. The invasion continues. ID factoid: multiflora can be distinguished from natives roses (usually pink) by its large inflorescences (many flowers, many hips) while native rose usually have single flowers on a stem and produce single, larger hips.

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Bee-friendly plants series: Blackberry

Blackberry is my new favourite plant …but not for getting up close and personal with. Remember Brer Rabbit? “Please, please Brer Bear, anything, do anything, but don’t throw me in the briar patch.” You don’t need to go to the briar patch until late August or early September and when you do, denim is really not enough …coveralls on top, boots and work gloves are all useful to work your way in to the good spots. A blackberry patch is prickly but it can be a very generous thing. I made a gadget with a big coffee can and a seatbelt to strap around my waist. It holds a two litre plastic container …two-handed picking. When you pick you need a vision – jam, juice, vine, berries and ice cream, whatever. My vision is blackberry-peach pie. Honeybees love blackberries and where there are enough they can make a honey crop. Some lucky people take off mono-floral blackberry honey. Blackberry is a perennial plant but the berries are borne biennially – the vine grows one year and bears fruit the next. As usual, bees and birds are a one-two punch and, with the help of birds, blackberries quickly colonize waste and abandoned land. Bees and birds make things better. Botanical factoid: “torus” is the name for the core of the berry; with raspberries it stays on the plant when you pick, with blackberries the torus comes away with the berry.

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Bee-friendly plants series: Hawkweed

Hawkweed flowers are everywhere right now…by the gazillions. The flower is like a small dandelion in shape and colour and the flower (usually single) is borne on a slender hairy stem about a foot high (less if it is re-growth after a mow). The leaves lie in a rosette on the ground if it is mouse-eared hawkweed –the most common of many varieties. The stem shows white latex if you snap it. Hawkwwed is a plant of dry, infertile, acid and compacted soils. You will see it in lawns, but not if there is a lawn fetish in place and the turf is limed and fertilized. I drove from Debert to Five Islands early this week. Very few lawn worshippers along the shore, I’d say, and hawkweed was abundant. I couldn’t find many references to it as a honey plant, but a plant list from New York State listed 27 honey plants. The top five were clovers and goldenrod and aster and hawkweed was listed at the same level as 22 others as minor honey plants. But it is numerous and blooms from June through September. That’s got to mean something. The guy in Economy who hosts my bee yard backs off the mowing when my bees are in residence; he says the bees rise up from the hawkweed as he mows and he doesn’t want to kill them, so he parks the mower. I thank him for that. My pictures show honeybees collecting pollen from hawkweed. Honeybees are faithful to their chosen task and chosen flower, I believe. A trip will be for either pollen or nectar. And on that trip only one kind of flower will be visited. Hawkweed seems to be on their call list, maybe not a favourite, but there anyway. Folksy factoid: an orange variant of hawkweed is sometimes called Devil’s paintbush, and though hawkweeds are an invasive species, Devil’s paintbrush is sometimes grown as an ornamental.

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Bee-friendly plants series: Caragana

Caragana first came to my attention decades ago when I was reading a Margaret Laurence novel. One of the characters, a child, was hiding in the caragana and, I think, listening to adults from behind the caragana. At that time I’d never heard of caragana. I figured it must be a bush and when I looked it up I found an alternate name is Siberian pea shrub. Now, anything with “Siberian” in it is of interest to a northern gardener because it indicates hardiness. Turns out caragana is rated hardy in zone 3 (We are zone 5 and 6 in Nova Scotia), so it should be a bullet-proof plant for us. It is a very popular shrub on the prairies where climate is much more extreme than ours. It has pale green foliage, yellow flowers and is very attractive to bees and blooms in late May, early June. A good bee plant. After I learned about it I started looking for it, and the first place I spotted it was in Little Bass River on a property on the Pleasant Hills Road. I collected some seed pods and started growing transplants. It is dead easy to grow from seed. The seed pods form and ripen in mid-summer. When they turn brown and dry they open in a kind of corkscrew shape and shed their seed, so better to collect them just before this stage, dry them a bit and plant seed immediately. The bushes can grow 10-12 feet high. They get kind of leggy and then can blow over in the wind. You can prune them to keep them shorter. They are not really a specimen plant –not showy at all- so they are probably better in a hedge or background planting or shelterbelt where they can quietly do good work fixing nitrogen and feeding bees. Sort of irrelevant factoids: it was brought to North America initially by Asian immigrants who used its seeds as a food source, and in some places it is considered an invasive species.

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Bee-friendly plants series: Hawthorn

Hawthorn bushes bloom profusely in late May through June. They are an edge plant and enjoy the sun. The bushes are an excellent source of nectar and pollen for honeybees; they are just not numerous enough here to be a significant contribution to a bee’s larder in most locations. In fall and winter the berries, or “haws” are food for birds and jelly ingredients for people. Hawthorns are prickly customers: I pruned our hawthorn hedge one year, then ran over the prunings with our tractor and got a flat tire when a thorn punctured it. Lesson learned. I had planted a row of white spruce to make a windbreak when we had cows and then had the bright idea of fronting the spruce with hawthorn so the cattle wouldn’t push into the spruce planting. A neighbor had some hawthorn, and thanks to the birds pooping the seeds, there were lots of little bushes to transplant. I’d heard of hawthorn hedges being a big thing in England so was trying to copy their idea. For this post I’ve learned a lot more about hawthorn hedges and it is a fascinating topic. The British hedges are made in many different ways according to local traditions. First the small bushes are planted in a row a couple of feet apart. When they reach eight feet high they can be partially cut near the ground, then bent over and tied to stakes. The bent over part continues to grow and flower and new shoots also come up from the partially cut stump. Apparently the hedges need renovating every twenty years, so they are not maintenance free. Hawthorn with its thorns is the main means of stock containment, but many other kinds of bushes, such as hazel and willow, can be incorporated or can volunteer in the hedge. These hedges would make wonderful habitat for birds and other wildlife and provide abundant food for bees. Hawthorn hedges were “the thing” until the invention of barbed wire in the USA in the 1860’s and now hedges are in general decline. Pity, because hedges do more for diversity than barbed wire does. Wikipedia says that as recently as 1946 there were 500,000 miles of hawthorn hedge in England. There are some existing English hawthorn hedges dating back 1,000 years: one called Judith’s Hedge was created for William the Conqueror’s sister’s farm. Hedges do take away from the amount of land available for cultivation, but with our concerns about pollinator decline, they might be part of the fix. Ghoulish factoid: Southern Slavs thought a hawthorn stake was the best way to do in a vampire

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