Monday, May 20, 2024

Balkan Ecology Project : Early Flowering/Edible/Wildlife Plants

EcologyBalkan Ecology Project : Early Flowering/Edible/Wildlife Plants


All of the plants listed here provide an early source of pollen/nectar to a wide diversity of pollinating insects. The majority of the plants bloom when there are few other sources of nectar/pollen available. This encourages pollinating insects in and around our gardens to fulfill their vital role when the crops (particularly fruit trees) start to flower in the early spring. Additionally, these plants are all edible for humans.

During this post, we’ll take a look at these plants, ideal for forest gardens, permaculture, and regenerative landscapes serving both our needs and the needs of wildlife. You’ll find a selection of trees, shrubs, herbs, and bulbs.

Let’s start with trees

Prunus dulcis – Almond

Species Overview – Prunus dulcis is a lovely small tree that not only produces a vast and lively spring show that attracts a wide audience of useful pollinators but also has the added bonus of producing almond nuts in the autumntime. Trees are much like the peach, however, the almond is self-incompatible and two or more cultivars are needed for best cross-pollination. As well as being a tasty addition to the diet, almonds are also beneficial to the overall health of the body and are widely used in many treatments for a variety of ailments

Uses – Seeds (Almond nuts) can be eaten raw, cooked, or dried and ground into a powder for use in confections and blended with water to make almond milk. Edible oil is obtained from the seed mainly as a food flavoring and in cooking but has been used for oiling delicate mechanical parts such as a watch. The oil is often used in soaps and cosmetics because it has a softening effect on the skin

A green dye can be obtained from the leaves and dark grey to green dye can be obtained from the fruit and a yellow dye from the roots. Gum that exudes from damaged stems is used as an adhesive, the gum is also edible.

Biodiversity- Almond blossom provides a rich source of nectar for wild bees and syrphid flies among other pollinators.   


Corylus avellana – Hazelnut

Species Overview – A fast-growing deciduous shrub with rounded leaves, producing yellow male catkins in the early spring followed by delicious edible nuts in the autumn. Typically reaching 3–8 m tall but may reach 15 m. 


Uses – One of the finest temperate nuts eaten roasted or raw. The wood from hazel is also commonly used. Soft, easy to split but not very durable it is mainly used for small items of furniture, hurdles, wattles, basketry, pea sticks, etc. The tree is very suitable for coppice. The twigs can be used to feed rabbits and goats all year round The nuts also contain 65% of a non-drying oil that can be used in paints, cosmetics, etc. Finely ground seeds are used as an ingredient of face masks in cosmetics. 

Biodiversity – The pollen-bearing catkins can be available to pollinators from as early as late Jan – late March. Hazel leaves provide food for the caterpillars of many moths. Hazelnuts are used by dormice to fatten up for hibernation and in spring the leaves are a good source of food for caterpillars, which dormice also eat. Hazelnuts are also eaten by woodpeckers, nuthatches, tits, wood pigeons, jays, and a number of small mammals.

Cornus mas – Cornelian Cherry

Species Overview – Cornus mas is one of my favorite plants. The hum of the bees under our Cornus mas trees on a sunny day in late winter is just one of the reasons I love this plant.  It’s a  medium-sized hardy tree and an excellent pollenizer producing a bounty of flowers rich in nectar from Feb – March. The plant is self-fertile and the flowers go on to form wonderful grape-shaped fruits in late summer delicious when fully ripe.

Four seasons of Cornus mas from our home garden.

Uses –  Excellent fruit when ripe and great for making cordial or syrups. Nutritional analysis indicates that Cornelian cherry juices are rich in various essential elements and might be considered an important dietary mineral supplementation.

The seeds can be roasted, ground into a powder, and used as a coffee substitute and a small amount of edible oil can be extracted from the seed.  A dye is obtained from the bark and the leaves are a good source of tannin. The wood is very hard, it is highly valued by turners and has a history of use for tools, machine parts, etc. We use the twigs to feed rabbits and goats all year round. 

Biodiversity – One of the earliest trees to flower, attracting a wide range of pollen and nectar-feeding invertebrates from Feb – March. We often see great tits, blue tits, and long-tailed tits in our trees during the winter. I’m not sure whether they are feeding on the buds, dried fruit or perhaps the invertebrates sheltering under the bark and crevices.

Chaenomeles speciosa – Japanese Quince

Species Overview – A thorny deciduous or semi-evergreen shrub native to eastern Asia, usually growing to about 2 m tall and generally exhibiting a rounded outline, but is somewhat variable in form. The plants establish a very dense crown with a tangled jumble of branches that are either spiny or with spurs. The flowers come before the leaves and are usually red, but maybe white or pink. The fruit is fragrant and looks similar to a small apple although some cultivars have much larger pear-shaped fruits. The leaves do not change color in autumn.

Uses – The fruits don’t make great eating and are generally extremely hard but following a cold spell I found the Japanese Quince softened enough to squeeze like a lemon, and the juice being very acidic makes them an excellent alternative to lemon juice. Another plus for this fruit is that they have a delicious and somewhat addictive aroma that lingers around for a few days resembling that of pineapples, lemons, and vanilla. We leave the fruits in the car or around a room to act as a natural air freshener.

Biodiversity – The flowers are attractive to a wide range of pollen and nectar-feeding invertebrates from March- April, sometimes in February. With regular pruning the shrubs become dense providing suitable nesting habitats for birds such as wren – Troglodytes troglodytes, chiffchaff – Phylloscopus collybita and robin – Erithacus rubecula. The diets of these birds include some common vegetable pests and can help keep pest populations in check.

For more on Chaenomeles spp. see our previous blog article here.

Mahonia aquifolium – Oregon Grape

Species Overview – A great little shade-tolerant evergreen shrub growing to 1 m tall by 1.5 m wide that can cope with most soils and thrive in shady spots where many other plants succumb. It is resistant to summer drought and tolerates wind. The plant produces dense clusters of yellow flowers in early spring, followed by dark bluish-black berries. Once the plant gets going it’s very vigorous and produces many suckers.

Mahonia aquifolium – Oregon Grape
Uses –  The small purplish-black fruits can be used to make jelly or juice that can be fermented to make wine. The inner bark of the larger stems and roots of Oregon grapes yield a yellow dye; the berries give purple dye. The holly-like evergreen leaves are sometimes used by florists to add to bouquets. It makes a great understory shrub for densely shaded areas.

Biodiversity – Excellent early-flowering nectar source for bees and bumblebees.  The nectar and pollen may be taken by blackcaps, bluetits, and house sparrows. Berries are eaten by blackbirds and mistle thrushes.  Good caterpillar food plant.

For more on this plant see our Mahonia aquifolium plant profile

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Lonicera caerulea – Honeyberry

Species Overview – Honeyberry, also known as haskap, is a type of edible berry that is native to parts of Asia and Europe. It is a member of the honeysuckle family. The small cream-colored, tubular flowers appear in very early spring followed by purple fruits very early in the summer. Honeyberries have a distinctive, elongated shape and range in color from dark blue to purple. The plants are hardy and can grow in a variety of soil types, but they prefer well-drained soil and full sun and grow best in cooler climates. 

Lonicera caerulea – Honeyberry

Uses –  The edible fruits have a sweet-tart flavor and are often used in jams, pies, and other baked goods. In addition to being eaten fresh, honeyberries can also be dried or frozen for later use. Honeyberries are high in antioxidants, particularly anthocyanins, which are responsible for the berry’s dark color. They are also a good source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, vitamin K, and manganese. Some studies have suggested that honeyberries may have potential health benefits, such as improving cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of certain types of cancer. The plants also make an effective low-growing hedge

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Primula vulgaris – Primrose

Species Overview – A herbaceous perennial, loving cool, damp banks and glades, and thriving in coppice woodland where they can form a stunningly attractive carpet. They like wet soil best, with lots of shade in the summer. The drier and hotter the climate, the more they need shade. Summer drought is not a big problem as long as they get plenty of moisture in autumn and the first part of the year. 

Uses: Both flowers and leaves are edible, the flavor ranging between mild lettuce and more bitter salad greens. The leaves can also be used for tea, and the young flowers can be made into primrose wine.

Biodiversity – Primroses are one of the earliest spring flowers. They may be found flowering in warm sheltered nooks as early as the end of January, although most flower from March to May. Because they flower so early in the year, they provide a vital source of nectar at a time when there are few other flowers around for insects to feed on such as adult Brimstone butterflies which have hibernated over the winter and often emerge on warmer winter days.

For more on this plant see our Primula vulgaris plant profile

Bellis perennis – Daisy

Species Overview – An abundant, small, low-lying herbaceous perennial plant with white flowers with yellow centers and pink flecks, that appear most of the year, except in freezing conditions. The plants habitually colonize lawns and grassland. 

Uses: May be used as a potherb and young leaves can be eaten raw in salads or cooked, noting that the leaves become increasingly astringent with age. Flower buds and petals can be eaten raw in sandwiches, soups, and salads. It is also used as a tea and as a vitamin supplement. Medicinally, the plant is known for its healing properties and can be used on small wounds, sores, and scratches to speed up the healing process. The spreading habit of the plant makes it a good ground cover option.

Biodiversity – A valuable addition to grassland areas managed for wildflowers and wildlife attracting a good deal of attention from pollinators when little other forage is available.

Rumex acetosa – Sorrel

Species Overview – Sorrel is a perennial herb that is native to Europe and Asia. It is a member of the buckwheat family and is closely related to other edible plants such as rhubarb and dock. Sorrel has long, narrow leaves that are a distinctive bright green color and produce small, green flowers in the early spring.

Uses:  The leaves and flowers of the plant are edible and have a tangy, lemony flavor that is often used in salads, soups, and other dishes. They can be rather overpowering in quantity and are more generally used as a flavoring in mixed salads. The leaves can also be dried for later use although they can be available all through the winter, especially in mild weather or if a little protection is given to the plants. Flowers can be cooked as a vegetable or used as a garnish and the root can also be cooked and eaten. The juice of the leaves can be used as a curdling agent for milk and to remove stains from linen.

Dark green to brown and dark grey dyes can be obtained from the roots and a grey-blue dye is obtained from the leaves and stems. The deep roots of these plants make them a good mineral repositor gathering minerals or nutrients from the subsoil.

Biodiversity – The plant is pollinated by the wind so does not attract bees and other pollinators but it is noted for attracting wildlife, providing bird food via seeds and food for a wide range of invertebrates  

Allium ursinum – Wild Garlic

Species Overview – Wild garlic is a very attractive spring-flowering perennial that may be grown for both ornamental and culinary uses.  The plant enjoys moist but well-drained soils and can form a dense ground cover during the spring after which it dies back and rests dormant until the following year. 

Uses – The leaves are often used in cooking, particularly in dishes from European cuisines, and is also used medicinally for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The bulbs can be harvested at any time the plant is dormant from early summer to early winter. The bulbs can be up to 4cm long and 1cm in diameter and have a fairly strong garlic flavour. It is also prized for its ornamental value, with its white flowers being a popular feature in gardens. The flowers too are edible with a mild flavor and also add decorative value to dishes.

It is known to repel some insects, including mosquitoes and some people use bear’s garlic as a natural insect repellent due to its strong, pungent aroma.

Biodiversity – The flowers are visited by a variety of insects for nectar, including bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.

Plant profile here

We have all of the below plants from this list available from our Nursery.



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