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Bee-friendly plants for your garden: a season by season list

Plant to attract honeybees that will pollinate your gardens.
Plant to attract honeybees that will pollinate your gardens.
Photo by Quincy Benton for Friday Jones Publishing

Leslie Ellis--a gardener and executive producer of the documentary film "Bee People"--and Mo Nevergold-- a professional gardener and owner of Dandelion Design, a Denver-based, all-female gardening team--compiled the following comprehensive yet not exhaustive list of seasonal plants that attract bees. Filmed on location in Colorado, "Bee People" draws attention to the fact that honeybees are disappearing at an alarming rate.

The list was shared with the Colorado chapter of Women Who Bee, a bee-keeping club that meets at To Bee Or Not To Bee, a bee-keeping supplies store in Denver.

For more about the documentary film "Bee People," click on this link for an interview with Ellis. Directed and co-produced by David Knappe, "Bee People" is one of many films featured in the third annual Women + Film "Voices" Film Festival, sponsored by Denver Film Society. "Bee People" shows Saturday, March 22, at 12:30 p.m. at SIE Film Center in Denver.

Comments from Ellis or Nevergold are included after each plants, and the women ask for pardon of any misspellings on their extensive list of plants that attract honeybees, by season.

Plants that attract bees in spring

Muscari armeniacum - Grape hyacinth – "A great little bulb that puts up foliage in fall and blooms in spring, blues, purples and whites."

Pulsatilla vulgaris - Pasque flower – "Blue, purple, magenta, blooms around Easter; buy as plant; seedheads are beautiful later."

Anemone blanda – Grecian Windflower - "Buy as corms and plant in fall, blooms white, blue or pink, approx. 4” high, she planted hers in a bed of Turkish Veronica and vinca."

Crocuses – Tiny bulbs are easy to plant, early spring bloomers, white, yellow, lavender, violet, purple, species crocus are smaller and bloom earlier than Crocus vernus so plant a mixture for a longer bloom season.

“Bees love blues and purples; yellow and white are close seconds. But really bees love whatever is currently blooming.”

Scilla siberica - Siberian Squill – plant bulbs in fall, a true blue, can tolerate a fair amount of shade – combine with yellow pansies for a real show stopper, although the pansies generally like more sun.

A few spring-blooming trees that attract bees in spring:

Amelanchier alnifolia - Serviceberry ‘Autumn Brilliance’ (white blossom)

Cercis canadensis - Eastern Redbud (bright pink flowers on naked branches)

Malus species - Crabapple (pinks & whites)

Prunus cerasifera ‘Newport’ - Purpleleaf Plum (light pink flowers on naked branches).

Phlox subulata - Creeping phlox "Comes in lots of colors, foliage is evergreen, great little ground cover."

Prunus virginiana - Canada Red Chokecherry – "Considered a small tree or large shrub. Available in single or multi-stem. Can grow to 25’ high. "As it’s leafing out, the leaves come out green then go to burgundy-red in June. White flowers are super-fragrant and bees love them."

Thymus neiceffii - Juniper Leaf Thyme – "Hot pink flowers, great little sage-colored ground cover."

Anacyclus depressus - Mount Atlas Daisy - "Drought tolerant, re-seeds freely. Feathery foliage can tolerate some foot traffic. Flowers are white when open during the day, maroon when closed."

Brunnera macrophylla - Siberian Forget-Me-Nots – "Tiny brilliant to sky blue flowers, the one shown was called “Jack Frost” because of the white mottling on the leaves."

Hyacinths – 'Fragrant bulb, plant in fall, available in many colors."

Aurinia saxatilis - Basket of Gold – "Tough plant, good in rock walls where it can cascade downward, abundant bright yellow flowers."

Plants that attract bees in late spring to early summer

Nepeta x faassenii - Catmint – "Light purple flowers with a long bloom season, plus if you deadhead, you get a second bloom in August/September. Great bee plant!"

Eriogonum umbellatum - Sulphur Buckwheat – "Yellow flowers, native to Colorado, an evergreen. If in full sun in winter, foliage goes to a deep burgundy. Fairly drought-tolerant."

Delosperma cooperi – Purple Iceplant – "Needs good drainage, especially in winter. Full sun. Bright violet/pink flowers open in day, close at night. Ground cover that’s good on a slope. Cannot tolerate foot traffic."

Allium family – "Bees love theses easy to grow bulbs. Plant in fall. Available in shades of purple, blue, magenta & white. The seedheads look like fireworks on a stem."

Linum lewisii - Blue flax – "Another native to Colorado. A real workhorse of a wildflower because it starts blooming pretty early & can go from an irrigated situation to super-dry."

Wisteria floribunda – "Yes, you can grow Wisteria in Colorado! The trick is siting it right. Hers (‘Lavender Falls’) is planted against a brick wall with eastern and southern sun. ‘Lavender Falls’ is well-mannered and smaller than Chinese Wisteria and as an added benefit, started blooming the first year it was planted. Large grape-like clusters of purple flowers hang from the vine as it leafs out."

Opuntia - Prickly Pear Cactus – "Hot pink flowers are irresistible to bees. Super tough plant that is way under-rated! No water needed. Try one. Very easy to establish."

Plants that attract bees in summer

Fallugia paradoxa - Apache Plume – "Very drought tolerant native desert shrub. White flowers look like a single petal rose. Feathery-looking seedheads, super-cool the way they reflect light in fall & winter."

Salvia x sylvestris - May Night Salvia – "Bees love plants in the mint family. Salvias come in blues, purples, reds & pinks. Great long season of bloom. Variety of sizes & forms. Remove flower stems after blooming if you don’t want them to reseed."

Penstemon strictus - Rocky Mountain Penstemon – "Native to Colorado. Blue-purple with a violet mouth. Bees land on them, then crawl inside. They reseed freely."

Syringa reticulata - Japanese Tree Lilac – "June bloomer with large clusters of creamy white flowers. Mature height approx. 15'."

Eremurus - Desert Candle or Torch Lily – "Torch-shaped flowers on long strong stems. Beautiful rosettes of foliage emerge in April. Likes dry soil. The tuberous roots look like a giant crab, and only have to be planted 2-3 inches deep. Comes in whites, yellows, oranges and pinks – they can get as tall as 5’. Bee city when in bloom."

Dianthus “Firewitch” – "Also known as carnations or pinks, easy to find; flowers are edible. Firewitch has evergreen silver-blue grassy foliage and a yummy spicy scent from its bright magenta flowers."

Clematis Ramona – well-behaved vine with large dusty blue/lavender flowers.

Clematis integrifolia & Clematis durandii – "Non-clinging vines with small blue bells & cool seedheads later. They sprawl through the garden, not up a trellis."

Lonicera koralkowii - Blue Velvet Honeysuckle Shrub – "Leaves feel velvety; shrub can get 8-12’ tall and wide; drought tolerant once established, small pale pink flowers."

Salvia nemorosa - Salvia ‘Blue Queen’ – "Bees go wild for it."

Lavandula angustifolia – English Lavender – "Great plant for bees and the Denver area, likes full sun, good on a slight slope for drainage as it doesn’t like it wet, L. ‘Hidcote’ is very well-mannered. ‘Munstead’ is another popular selection."

Echinacea purpurea – Coneflower – "Blooms a long time, attracts bees and butterflies. E. ‘Magnus’ & E. ‘White swan’ were shown. They will reseed. Leave the seedheads standing for the winter for food for birds."

Cleome serrulata - Rocky Mountain Bee Plant – "Varies in height based on available moisture. Near Crestone, the flowers are only 2’ tall, but in an irrigated garden, they can get almost 6ft tall. Bees love it and it’s also a hummingbird favorite. Annual but it reseeds copiously!"

Ratibida columnifera - Mexican Hat – "A definitive perennial wildflower of the southwest, flowers are yellow typically, also available in burnt orange, full sun, do not overwater, reseeds."

Delphinium ambiguum – Annual Larkspur – "A very prolific reseeding annual, flowers in shades of blue, purple, pink."

Penstemon pinifolius - Pineleaf Penstemon – "Evergreen airy shrublet with pine needle-like leaves, flowers red, yellow or orange, also attractive to hummingbirds."

Yarrow ‘Moonshine’ – "Yellow flowers that keep blooming through fall, great combo with Blue Flax or Salvia ‘May Night’, has silver/blue foliage, full sun."

Liatris spicata - Gayfeather – "Spikes of violet/pink or white flowers like magic wands."

Datura sp. - Moonflower aka Angel’s Trumpet– "All parts of Datura are considered toxic to humans and pets if ingested. The flower buds are about six inches long, and the bees get in there at dusk and make them quiver, so you can tell which buds are about to open into flowers. You can actually sit and watch it happen! The spectacular trumpet-shaped fragrant flowers are white and open at dusk, lasting only one day each. One of Mo’s favorites! Very drought tolerant, usually perennial here, but it is very late to break dormancy each May, once the soil temp has really warmed. Very easy to grow from seed."

Eryngium planum - Blue Sea Holly – "Looks spikey but that doesn’t stop the bees. Another of Mo’s favorites."

Callirhoe involucrata - Winecups – "Common in xeriscaping, super drought tolerant. This is a deep tap-rooted plant that sprawls through & across other plants or garden. Full sun, even heavy clay soil is fine. If it’s happy it can reach 8 feet across with bursts of magenta (or white) flowers. Not a great choice for a small garden. And beware because it reseeds liberally!"

Perovskia atriplicifolia - Russian sage – "Great vertical interest. White stems with lavender flowers. Although technically a woody plant, Russian Sage can be cut down to six to eight inches each spring if desired. Big bee attractant. A great full sun, low-water plant. Really good with Agastache rupestris (Sunset Hyssop), which is also low-water, blooms apricot colored flowers and when rubbed, the leaves smell like root beer."

Plants that attract bees in late summer to early autumn

Sedum sieboldii - October Daphne Sedum – "Tough little plant that blooms a pinkish color late in the summer. The shape of the flowers gives the bees lots of room to land. They just really dig it. It can take a bit of shade. Low maintenance, low water.

Caryopteris x clandonensis – Blue Mist Spirea – "Mo says that while not featured in her slide show simply for lack of a great photo, this workhorse of a shrub should be in every beekeeper’s garden! It flowers light to medium blue flowers August to September, also attracts butterflies. Good-looking seedheads should be left up to catch the winter sun. Can be cut back in spring to control size as desired. This is a shrub that reseeds freely. Full sun & low water.

Chamaebatiaria millefolium - Fernbush – Semi-evergreen shrub with aromatic fern-like leaves, native to the western part of Colorado. Super drought-tolerant; up to six feet tall and wide. Large clusters of white flowers in late summer/early fall. Watch your bees feast at eye-level."

Malva alcea - Hollyhock Mallow – "Pink flowers, another deep tap-rooted perennial plant that can take a lot of drought and still get 4' tall. Full sun."

Monarda didyma – ‘Violet Queen’ Bee Balm – when in bloom, the bees go 'Wahooo!' Full sun to part shade. 3 to 4’ tall.

Rudbeckia hirta - Black-Eyed Susan – "Late-summer bloomers, bees love ’em the cheerful, happy flowers that add a bright splash of yellow. Can be short lived, but they reseed."

Salvia pachyphylla- Mojave Sage – "Silvery foliage with purple and violet flower, can be a little hard to establish but once it is, your work is done. Do not overwater. A short woody shrublet that pays the rent."

Helianthus annuus - Sunflowers – "Amazing annuals that vary in height from 2’ to 15’, although most are in the 6 to 8’ range. Come into bloom later in the summer and will go ‘til the first frost. Available in a variety of yellows, reds & browns. Short varieties now available but why bother? If you have the room, go big! Leave stems/seedheads standing as long as possible as they’re a great food source for birds. Plant seeds outside May 1 in Denver."

Ipomoea - Morning Glory Vines – "Mo twines hers up using sunflowers as trellis. A fun annual vine that does best with an east facing site. Available in many colors, but 'Heavenly Blue' is a classic. A note of caution: Morning glories reseed very liberally!!!"

Plants that attract bees in fall

Chrysothamnus nauseosus - Rabbitbrush – "Another great low maintenance shrub choice for beekeepers. This is a drought-tolerant native that is typically 4’x4’ but can get 6’ tall if over-irrigated. If you keep it dry, it will stay much smaller. Yellow flowers that the bees go crazy for in fall. There’s a dwarf version that’s great for smaller gardens, Chrysothamnus depressus. It reseeds readily. Both versions can be cut back as needed in spring by as much as half, to maintain form and size."

Origanum laevigatum ‘Rosenkeppel’ - Ornamental Oregano – a late blooming perennial that bees find very attractive. Rosenkeppel is dusty pink, but Ornamental Oreganos comes in pinks, burgundies & creams and many different heights.

Sedum “Autumn Joy” – "Listen up, 'beeple.' Plant this, sit back and be amazed come fall. Very low- maintenance perennial that produces pink clumps of flowers in September for a late season bee-fest. Full sun. "

Rudbeckia triloba – Brown-Eyed Susan – "Much smaller yellow flowers than R. hirta, but more profuse blooms & can tolerate some shade. Good late season addition to the garden. Technically a biennial or a weak perennial, but reseeds readily. This plant will move around your garden but is a delight for late season bee interest."

Polygonum aubertii - Silver Lace Vine – "Drought-tolerant once established, but likes additional moisture. Very evocative of the Southwestern U.S. – great for hiding a chain-link fence or old clunker. This vine can get to 25’ and is covered in tiny white fragrant flowers in September. Very attractive to bees when in bloom.

Liatris punctata - Gayfeather aka Dotted Blazing Star – "This species is native to the short grass prairie and foothills of Colorado & only gets 12 to 18” tall without additional moisture, purple spikes are also attractive to hummingbirds."

Cynara cardunculus - Artichoke – "Needs full sun and well-amended, well-drained soil. A great focal point in the garden. While perennial in California, this vegetable is annual in Mo’s experience in the Denver area. Start with a plant. If you let the artichoke buds stay on the plant & flower, the bees will be grateful. They love the large exotic blue flowers, up to nine per strong stem. Give your artichoke plant 4’x4’ at least. The dramatic silver foliage is gorgeous too."

Clematis tangutica – ‘Golden Tiara’ Clematis – "Very late-blooming clematis, fairly tough vine, vigorous grower up to 20 ft. tall, golden yellow bell-shaped flowers may start in late summer and can bloom through late fall. The fluffy seedheads that follow are stunning too. If you have a spot, she’s a real show-stopper."

Bulbs – "In late September into October, plant as many as your body or budget allow and water them one to two times per month for the first winter, as temperatures allow."

Annuals – "Supplement your honeybees with some delicious annuals in the ground or containers. If you plant pansies in September or October in the ground, by early spring they’ll be blooming merrily, a veritable bee buffet!"

Vegetables – "Don’t forget that most vegetables and herbs flower, too. Bees love arugula once it goes to flower, squashes, eggplant, tomatoes, etc, etc. Take care of your bees, and they’ll take care of you."

••• "Cultivate your corner of the world. You grow your garden; your garden grows you." •••

• Colleen Smith's gift book "Laid-Back Skier" makes a charming gift! This whimsical, inspirational book includes original illustrations of ski bunnies and encouragement for life's ups and downs. Watch "Laid-Back Skier's" brief YouTube video here.

• Colleen Smith’s first novel, “Glass Halo”—a finalist for the 2010 Santa Fe Literary Prize — is available in hardcover or e—book.

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