Spring food

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No, the spicebush isn’t blooming yet, but I can hope and look forward, can’t I? There are barely two months to go before it does bloom. Now that the temperature has risen into the 40s for two days running, with the promise of topping 50 degrees today, I feel that spring is in the air. It isn’t, but I can hope.

For us gardeners, spring is the time of hope. For wild creatures (and for our ancestors who lived off the land), spring was the starving time–the most dangerous time of the year. Just imagine that you are dependent on what the earth can produce in your immediate vicinity for everything you eat. Now imagine that your winter’s cache of food is dwindling fast, but you have no idea when spring will come. And spring will not bring much food, because plants must go through most of the year’s growth cycle before they produce nutritious food. The starving time, indeed. We are lucky enough to no longer experience this, but wild animals certainly do. So I encourage you to consider their needs when you plan your garden.

What do wild creature eat in spring? They’re better at taking advantage of scarce resources than we are. A few seeds remain from last year, and some trees produce their seeds early. Early spring is when most birds have their young, so there must be food for them. Most birds feed nutritious insects to their nestlings. What do insects, particularly flying ones like springtime’s tiny flies and wasps, eat? Mostly pollen and nectar. Early birds don’t rely on worms–they rely on pollinating insects. So if you want to attract birds to your garden, plant early flowering perennials and shrubs. And do not use pesticides. Pesticides kill the insects that birds rely on for food.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin, female flowers shown above) is one of our earliest-flowering native shrubs. The flowers are inconspicuous, but it blooms in early April, and the berries are extremely showy and will attract birds to your garden in late summer. Spicebush is a wetland plant, but it does quite well in my dry, sandy soil. Plant it in part shade, and plant several individuals, because it is dioecious–in other words, individual plants are either male or female, and you need at least one male to get fruit.

Another early-blooming shrub that’s extremely  useful to wildlife is serviceberry (Amelanchier species, sometimes called Juneberry or shadbush). These bloom in mid-April in our area, and there is nothing inconspicuous about them. It’s one of the most gorgeous spring bloomers we have, with delicate sprays of flowers that look like strings of pearls as they unfold. There are 25 or 30 species of Amelanchier, including shrubs and small trees. Choose one that’s the right size for your site.

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Also important in early spring are the earliest blooming perennials–the spring ephemerals. These plants complete their entire yearly cycle—they emerge, flower, produce fruit, and go dormant—in early spring before the trees leaf out. Foremost among them are bloodroot (Sanginaria canadensis) and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), both shown below in bloom.

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Both prefer most soil and shade. Other spring ephemerals are wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), trout lily (Erythronium americanum), Dutchman’s breeches  (Dicentra cucullaria), native bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia), and wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata). There are many, many others, including some that don’t go dormant in summer and therefore work well as ground covers. These include wild ginger (Asarum canadense) and Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis). Choose a shady spot and a few of these plants, add some native ferns or perhaps the lovely variegated native pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens), and you’ve got a spring blooming garden that will be lovely to you and useful to wildlife.

When choosing plants, don’t forget the real backbone of the spring larder—the canopy trees that produce very early seeds. The most important of these are the birches and maples. These are some of the most important sources of spring food for wildlife in our area. Plant a river birch (Betula lenta) on a moist site or yellow birch (Betula lutea) on a dry one , and you’ll enjoy its beauty for many years to come, while wildlife enjoys its bounty.

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