CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Early blooming shrubs are rock stars in the pollinator garden

By Irene Shonle, Horticulture Associate, El Paso County

Have you ever felt sorry for a bumblebee who has emerged from her long winter’s nap on a warm spring day?  She buzzes around, looking for a little energy to replenish her stores, but there’s nothing in sight.  Or what about a Mourning Cloak butterfly?  They always seem to be the first butterfly out. Colorado plants in general are slow to wake up in the spring, and our spring weather is famous for being a roller coaster, so most plants play it safe and don’t bloom too earl, leaving early insects without any food.

Enter native shrubs – the rock stars of the early pollinator garden.  Even while most perennials are still sleeping, if you have some key native shrubs planted, you will be able to provide crucial food to those pollinators lured out on an unseasonably warm day.

The earliest to bloom, in my experience, are:
Mahonia repens - Creeping Mahonia
Creeping Mahonia (Mahonia repens) is a small groundcover. It has tough leaves that resemble holly, turn bronze-red in winter, and stay that way until spring.  In spring, bright yellow flowers are some of the first to burst into bloom, and they smell like honey. This is followed by blue berries in the fall (not very tasty, but good for wildlife).The plant can even tolerate dry shade, which is a big bonus!

American plum - Prunus americana

American plum (Prunus americana) is mid-sized shrub that sometimes tempts fate by emerging too early. It was blooming this year along the Front Range before the April 12 cold snap, and in many places, the flowers froze. However, in the majority of years, the flowers do just fine, and they smell wonderful.  The bushes produce orange to purple small plums with variable flavor – wildlife will eat them if you don’t use them in preserves.  It prefers full sun, but can take a little shade – and make sure to plant it where you can enjoy the smell.  It sometimes suckers.

Three-lobed sumac (Rhus trilobata) has early yellow-green flowers that are relished by bees. This is a tough shrub that can handle heat and drought, has reddish ‘berries’ that are an important winter food source for birds, and reddish-orange fall color.

Golden currant - Ribes aureum
Golden currant (Ribes aureum) is a smaller shrub with yellow flowers in the spring. Some varieties (var. villosum – formerly Ribes odoratum) smell like cloves. Golden and wax currants (R. cereum) are some of the first flowers for hummingbirds, but other pollinators such as bees enjoy them, too. Bonus: edible currants later in the summer (for you or for birds), and red fall color.

Slightly later we have:

Chokecherry - Prunus virginiana

Chokecherries (Prunus (Padus) virginiana) is a larger, suckering shrub with a host of habitat benefits. The fragrant white flowers are great for the pollinators and the plant overall is a good host plant for butterflies and other insects. The purple berries attract birds, and humans admire the red-colored fall leaves.  This is not a shrub that works well as a single-trunked tree due to the suckering; it is better as a hedge where you have a little room.

Serviceberry - Amelanchier alnifolia
Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) has many pollinator-friendly white flowers, followed by blue berries (good for people and birds to eat) and reddish fall color. 

These shrubs are awesome for pollinators, and also for birds.  And, importantly, will look great in your yard!


  1. I have a chokecherry along the fence in my backyard and have been training it as a single trunk tree. Now that I know better I'll let those suckers grow into a hedge. Thanks for the info!

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