If bees could speak, they would strongly suggest that instead of mulching our landscapes, we should plant flowering groundcovers. Expanses of mulch, to most of North Carolina’s 400 native bees, are food deserts offering little or no housing. Bees rely entirely on flowers for food and raising young, and most flowering plants rely on pollinators to produce seed. No flowers, no bees!
Groundcovers for pollinators
A wealth of options let you choose height, color, and bloom time to suit most any site—and no need to choose just one!
- Green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum)—Almost nothing beats our native green and gold for beauty and ease of growing. Bright green with abundant yellow flowers, it thrives in most well-drained soils in part-shade to part-sun, though it tolerates deeper shade and full sun.
- Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) produces a beautiful bee-friendly carpet that suppresses most weeds yet allows access to the many ground-nesting pollinators. Both green and gold and bugleweed bloom in mid- to late- May, spread readily but are easy to contain. They benefit from dividing or thinning every year or two, yielding more plants for your garden or to pass along.
- Pachysandras—Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis) is a common groundcover for part to deep shade, especially under trees; but the native pachysandra, also called Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens), is a taller, slower-spreading, interesting alternative that blooms in very early spring when so many pollinators are in need of nectar and pollen.
- Phloxes—Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) and moss phlox (Phlox subulata), both of which are native plants, are useful for sunny slopes.
Herbs. Many herbs are wonderful flowering groundcovers for sunny, dry sites.
- Thymes—Lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus) produces fewer flowers but quickly makes a thick mat that stops all weeds. Creeping or red thyme (Thymus praecox ‘Coccineus’) is shorter, semi-evergreen, and tolerates a bit of foot traffic. From a distance when in bloom, its cloud of reddish lavender flowers gives an effect similar to that of the phloxes.
- Prostrate forms of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) are fine groundcovers, though not always winter hardy and must have well-drained soil.
- Mints (Mentha)—Although not as easy to control or contain as other groundcovers, mints are a favorite source of nectar and pollen for many bees and certainly do a great job of covering bare soil and suppressing unwanted weeds. Some people choose (or try) to control mints’ aggressive tendencies by planting them in a deep pot or other container, then putting the container into the ground.
Shrubs. Several suckering shrubs provide excellent groundcover, particularly on slopes.
- Cotoneaster’s tiny white spring flowers feed bees and the resulting red berries feed birds through the winter. Several species, including willowleaf (Cotoneaster salicifolius), keep their rich deep green color through the winter. The rockspray species (Cotoneaster horizontalis) is an excellent option for places needing a much shorter plant.
- Winter-blooming heathers (Erica) are another excellent groundcover, tough and drought tolerant once established, they need loose, amended, well-drained soil. ‘Springwood White’ and ‘Springwood Pink,’ are widely available; but you can find many other colors and heights. These plants bring a special dynamic to the winter garden—there’s nothing quite like watching honeybees gather nectar on a mild January day to warm a gardener’s heart!
- Creeping evergreens (such as (Juniperus ) do not offer floral resources but provide excellent erosion control on slopes and allow access to underground nesting pollinators. Honeybees will also harvest resins from many conifers to use as caulk and an immune system ingredient.
Article written by Diane Almond, Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer.