Listen! O, listen!
Here come the hum the golden bees
Underneath full blossomed trees,
At once with glowing fruit and flowers crowned.
~James Russell Lowell, The Sirens
My neighbor and fellow gardener, Margaret has a white flowering Currant (Ribes) shrub near her front door. I think I’ve mentioned her yard in previous posts…anytime I wonder where my bees are foraging I have only to walk up the block to find them somewhere in her garden.
Well it’s March, spring in my hemisphere, and the flowering currants are beginning to bloom in my neighborhood and that’s where I found them today, in her shrub. When it’s fully engulfed in open blooms they are there, in droves. As a passerby, you can hear them. Both of us look forward to the March days that are warm enough to lure the bees out of their hive and into her currant. Today, as I was walking to see if they were in her shrub, she called from her window…”Joan! Your bees are all around the garden!” And they were…on this gorgeous, sunny 50F (10C) degree morning they were in the crocus gathering pollen, in the heath gathering nectar and in her currant. When in bloom, this shrub is beautiful. Personally I think some white flowers are far classier than their colored counterparts and this is one example. The red flowering currant is nice but the white outshines it to my eye. That and I’ve not seen the bees go to the red varieties so perhaps I’m a little biased. However the hummingbirds frequent the red.
There are several Ribes species. Some can take colder winters, some need warm winters. The species hardy and prevalent in the Pacific Northwest is Ribes sanguineum. Her white variety is probably 10-12 feet (3-4m) tall but not as wide, and gets morning sun. Mostly I see the red King Edward VII variety around here, advertised to only reach about 8 feet (2.5m) in height. It is easy to find in bloom in nurseries now. Whichever color you choose the Ribes sanguineum is hardy in zones 4-9. This is a deciduous shrub native to the coastal ranges of California up to British Columbia. Plant them in sun to light shade. They are fairly drought tolerant but do better with moderate water. If your summers are hot and dry, give them a shadier spot for the heat of the day. They will need little if any pruning if you buy the variety that grows to the size you have space for in your garden. But beware, the tag may say a size of eight feet but ask a knowledgeable nursery employee before you buy…it could get bigger.
While this currant does produce some fruit it is not the same species used for culinary purposes. Look for those in the fruiting section of your nursery.
Nectar and Pollen Plants of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest by Burgett, Stringer and Johnston is a fantastic book. It is an illustrated guide to plants sought after by honeybees in this region. Though geared toward beekeepers, any gardener interested in attracting pollinators could benefit from it. In it they list Ribes sanguineum Pursh as “not very attractive to bees” but also list nectar and pollen both to be had. This is the only variety they mention, which includes the red, 'King Edward VII'. This may explain why I don’t see bees on the reds. Having not seen the tag from Margaret’s shrub, I can’t definitively give you the variety, however, ‘White Icicle’ is a white cultivar commonly sold here under the name Ribes sanguineum glutinosum ‘White Icicle’. Neither can I explain why the bees like it and not the red.
I am so glad my neighbor has this plant. This time of year with less nectar and pollen available, those blooming spring plants attractive to bees are especially important for them to begin foraging and replenishing their dwindling stores. The earlier they can find quality pollen and nectar the earlier the queen starts to lay eggs, the quicker the colony builds up, the more time for honey production.
Had I not seen the bee’s response to these blooms with my own eyes I’d probably have skipped over the importance of this plant. It’s now on my list of bee-plants for a future garden and you can be sure I’ll include it in my presentations to bee clubs and garden clubs.
In Bloom In My Garden Today: Daffodil ‘Tete a Tete’, Cyclamen coum, crocus, primrose (double English), Heleborus, Bellis perennis (English Daisy), violet primrose, Sarcococca, Galanthus elwesii (snowdrops)