Clay Soil Plants for Bees

Bumble bee on escallonia.Bumble bee on escallonia.

Clay soil can be very challenging even without the conundrum of how to fill it with plants that will benefit bees and other pollinators. 

In a garden I owned some years ago,  I spent a two years, a lot of energy, many hours and a small fortune on conditioners and composts, trying to break up the heavy, wet clay in order to improve it.

Bombus pascuorum - common carder bumble bee flying toward purple loosetrife.Bombus pascuorum - common carder bumble bee flying toward purple loosetrife.

However, the truth of the matter was that I had little time for gardening back then, and also very limited knowledge. At that time, it would have been far better had I simply stuck with plants that are happy in wet conditions. I could have saved myself quite a bit of money, and hours of work.

Of course, if you have the time, energy, money and preferably all of these, there are actions you can take to resolve the issue, even going as far as installing drainage systems.

However, that could prove costly and unnecessary.  There are plenty of clay soil tolerant plants that attract bees and other pollinators. You may be surprised at how many plants will tolerate it - indeed, I only mention a handful here.  Also, please check the suitability of these plants in your own region and country. 

On the other hand, if things are so bad you could almost consider supplying a pottery works, you may need to take action to improve it, in order that anything will grow, but first of all, I would consult a specialist organisation to see whether that's necessary.

Examples of good clay soil plants that attract bees, include:

  • Pulmonaria 'Diana Clare'
Anthophora plumipes - hairy-footed flower bee female on PulmonariaAnthophora plumipes - hairy-footed flower bee female on Pulmonaria.

  • Campanula trachelium; Campanula latifolia
  • Astrantia major 'Lars'
  • Veronicastrum virginicum 'Pointed Finger' 

  • Various geranium flowers, including Geranium sylvaticum 'Birch Lilac'; Geranium palustre; Geranium × magnificum
Leafcutter bee on geranium.Leafcutter bee on geranium.
  • Solidago rugosa 'Fireworks'
Apis mellifera - honey bee on Solidago.Apis mellifera - honey bee on Solidago.
  • Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii 'Goldsturm'
  • Helenium 'Rubinzwerg'
  • Bergenia pacumbis

  • Nepeta × faassenii 'Kit Cat'; Nepeta racemosa
  • Dahlia 'Yellow Hammer' (Sin/dwb)
  • Hosta

Bumble bee on hosta flower.Bumble bee on hosta flower.

Shrubs and Trees for Clay Soil

Consider these options:

  • Hypericum calycinumHypericum × hidcoteense 'Hidcote'  (great for pollen) 
Bombus terrestris - buff-tailed bumble bee on hypericum.Bombus terrestris - buff-tailed bumble bee on hypericum.

  • Malus (crab apple)
  • Fuchsia: Fuchsia 'Globosa'; Fuchsia 'Other Fellow'; Fuchsia'Katrina Thompsen'
  • Viburnum tinus 'Variegatum' (v) 

  • Erica × darleyensis 'Epe'; Erica × darleyensis f. albiflora 'White Glow'; Erica × darleyensis 'Katia' (PBR) (Winter Belles Series); Erica cinerea 'Knap Hill Pink' 

Apis mellifera - honey bee on Erica.Apis mellifera - honey bee on Erica.
  • Ribes nigrum 'Ben Sarek' (B); Ribes sanguineum 'Brocklebankii' 
  • Cornus amomum 'Blue Cloud' 
  • Salix caprea
  • Pyracantha rogersiana; Pyracantha atalantioides
  • Hebe × andersonii

  • Hydrangea paniculata 'Kyushu' 

Bombus terrestris - buff-tailed bumble bee on Hydrangea paniculata.Bombus terrestris - buff-tailed bumble bee on Hydrangea paniculata.
  • Mahonia (excellent early source of food for bees).  You could try: Mahonia × media 'Charity'; Mahonia × media 'Charity'; Mahonia × media 'Lionel Fortescue'; Mahonia × media 'Underway'; Mahonia oiwakensis subsp. lomariifolia
  • Escallonia rubra
  • Cotoneaster: Cotoneaster horizontalis, Cotoneaster lacteus: Cotoneaster conspicuous
  • Buddleja davidii 'île de France'; Buddleja davidii 'Harlequin' (v); 

  • Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea 'Bagatelle'; Berberis thunbergii 'Green Carpet' ; Berberis thunbergii
Bombus lapidarius - red-tailed bumble bee on Berberis.Bombus lapidarius - red-tailed bumble bee on Berberis.

Gardening in these conditions is hard work - I know! However, before you spend a great deal of money on resolving the issue, trialling a few of these plants may be a good idea.

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