~ Plant Highlight ~
February is a busy month in Kentucky. Regardless of what the groundhog says, it is the transition between winter and spring. It is when we are most likely to have our major snow and ice storms, often right before or after a string of spring-like 70 degree days. It is also the month when our earliest spring flowers start to appear.
Many of the plants that bloom in February are trees. Red maples (Acer rubrum) are some of our earliest blooming trees. As I drive around, I am already starting to notice that the tips of some of the trees along the highways are turning red. They always make me smile when I first start to notice them. They are proof that spring isn’t too far away even if winter isn’t done yet.
The redness that I am seeing right now aren’t the actual flowers. What I am seeing now are the flower buds starting to swell. It’ll probably take another warm spell or two before the buds actually open up and the flowers bloom. Some maple trees will take slightly longer to bloom. Trees along highways or in cities often bloom a week or two before trees in more rural areas. The concrete and asphalt along the highways and in the cities act as heat sinks which keep the surrounding area slightly warmer than the neighboring rural areas.
Red maple flowers appear long before the leaves and are relatively small. Being so far up in the trees and so small, they often aren’t noticed as anything more than a little bit of color at the tips of the branches. Maple flowers produce both nectar and pollen. After several months of almost no flowering plants, the maple flowers are an important source of fresh food for any insect pollinators that are out on February’s warm days. Miner bees (a type of early native bee), honey bees, and a few other insect pollinators will eagerly collect the nectar and pollen.
Since red maples bloom so early, insect pollinators aren’t nearly as numerous during the maple bloom as they are later in the spring or summer. February’s crazy weather also means that there are many days while the maples are blooming that the early pollinators aren’t active. Days when it’s too cold or wet or cloudy for the pollinators to fly.
Bad weather and few early pollinators could easily combine and result in reduced maple pollination. However, anyone who has a maple tree in their yard knows the maple seeds are always plentiful. Lack of good pollination never seems to be an issue for maple trees. That is because maples have a flexible approach to pollination. Maples can be pollinated by the wind as well as by insects.
In fact, maple pollination isn’t nearly as well understood as one might expect given how important maples are too our eastern forests. But that’s one of the things I love about nature – there is always something else to learn and discover.
Shannon Trimboli is a beekeeper, farmer, wildlife biologist, and author. She owns Grassy Roads Farm and Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting. Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting specializes in plants and habitat consulting services for honey bees, native pollinators, and wildlife conservation. In 2018, her first book, Plants Honey Bees Use in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, was published. Shannon also writes a weekly blog called Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife. The blog features profiles of pollinators and wildlife, tips for attracting pollinators and wildlife, highlights of different plants for pollinators and wildlife, and life on the farm and nursery. You can sign up to have her blog emailed to you.