There's nothing so hopeful as an early spring flower, defiantly emerging out of the deadened winter landscape and signaling a renewal of life. Here in the St. Louis area, that usually means daffodils. These cheery trumpets sound off in early March to lift our collective spirits.
But as much as Anthony and I like our daffodils around here - and we do, as evidenced by our apparent daffyness for them - we have to admit they don't do much to provide food for pollinators and other insects here in the U.S. Most ornamental bulbs originated in Europe or elsewhere; they did not evolve alongside our native fauna, which tends to find them either outright toxic or regard them with indifference. These bulbs are not a viable food source; they're just pretty little statues, really.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. A few tulip, daffodil, gladiolus, and other blooms in the spring garden can give you beauty and joy.
But if you want to turn back the tide on habitat loss - one of the major factors cited in pollinator decline - you should put in more native plants. While a lot of people think of native summer wildflowers first and foremost, I want to turn you on to a few spring bloomers you might not know.
Copper Iris - Iris fulva
With long, slender, light green leaves topped by an audacious tuba spray of copper, this early spring bloom should be on everyone's wish list. Native to the Midwest, copper iris is slow-growing at first, like a lot of native plants, but then explodes in its third year to give you stunning flowers.
It's exciting to see the bud begin to open in late May.
I put in one plant from a nursery seedling in 2019, and it's already divided. The blooms are astounding!
Ozark Witch Hazel - Hamamelis vernalis
The very first bloom of the spring is something of an oddity. Ozark witch hazel blooms as early as late February, with crinkled orange streamers around a yellow center. Besides the funky-looking bloom, the odd factor comes in two other ways: 1) the early bloom time and 2) the fact that what pollinates this late-winter flower is a bit of a mystery. February is bad timing for most pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, as they tend to emerge later in spring. So what pollinates witch hazel? Perhaps hoverflies, which take advantage of warm winter days to forage for pollen.
Ozark witch hazel is also a rare plant: Out of the entire world, it's found in only five U.S. states: Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. I'm happy to say we've added three Ozark witch hazels to our garden, one from a nursery and two seedlings from the Missouri Department of Conservation (costing only $1 each, yo, through Wild Ones). After some initial damage from our Eastern cottontail rabbits, which found them delicious, all three are thriving, and the one from the nursery, which we planted in 2018, has not only bloomed profusely but is tall and robust enough to support squash vines, which clamber up the branches.
Witch hazel is a great permaculture plant because of its dual role as a support for native animals and insects and its use as a medicinal for humans. You should be familiar with witch hazel as a traditional medicine cabinet item. You can make an astringent from the bark, and it's historically been used to treat hemorrhoids, sore muscles, coughs, and other ailments. Removing the bark kills the tree, however, so sources recommend using only pruned or fallen limbs. Disclaimer: I have not yet tried to make my own witch hazel astringent, but it's on my list. Second disclaimer: I am not a health expert and am not advising you to treat ailments with witch hazel; I'm merely reporting on its historic use.
Violets - Viola sororia
Regular readers of this blog know I've waxed enthusiastic about violets before, with full recommendations on their many culinary uses, their value as a host plant for fritillary butterflies, and my enduring preference for them as a ground cover to replace turf grass. With so many beneficial aspects, and pretty little white- or royal purple-and-yellow blooms to boot, how could you not desire violets in your home landscape?
In some regions, the violets are likely to show up of their own accord, too. Yeah, that's right; this is one flower you might not have to plant yourself! Our ubiquitous violet ground cover is 100 percent volunteer and lasts from spring to fall. I've used the blooms and leaves to make everything from petal-infused ice cubes to violet sugar and violet tea.
I hope these three suggestions for spring-blooming flowers you can plant this fall inspire you to the possibilities in your own garden. Happy fall planting!