Spring draba flowers provide an early source of food for bees

Bob Dluzen
The Detroit News

A new weed showed up in the garden this week. Actually it is not really new, it’s Draba verna, something that I haven't seen in such numbers in this particular spot. 

Draba verna, commonly known as whitlow grass or spring draba among other names, is one of the first plants that bloom early in the spring. 

Because it flowers so early, draba is a good source of nectar and pollen for wild bees, honeybees and other insects when the choices they have for foraging is limited. 

This stand of whitlow grass covers about a 30 x 60 foot area.

In the case of honeybees, by the time spring arrives, their stores of honey are essentially depleted so bees must become active after the winter as soon as they can. Hives that survive winter are often lost in the spring due to the hive using up the last of their honey. 

Draba verna flowers have four deeply lobed petals making it look like they have eight petals.

When temperatures rise into the mid-50s or so, honeybees will be flying out of their hives searching for food. That’s what makes early flowering plants like draba so important for honeybees and other pollinators.

The draba plant itself is very small, its basal rosette of leaves is only an inch or two in diameter at the most, making it easy to overlook when growing as single plants scattered around the garden. But when a bunch of them blossom all together in one spot, they make a pretty impressive display, especially this time of year before anything else has had a chance to flower.

Spring draba is the only plant growing in this spot right now.

Whitlow grass is not really grass, it is a member of the mustard family. It grows as a winter annual, meaning it germinates during the previous fall and stays dormant through winter until conditions are right for it to begin growing in the spring. 

If you regularly till in the fall and plant a winter cover crop, chances are you will not see a large display of flowering draba. That’s because fall tilling will disturb the seedings and a cover crop will smother out any that may be left. 

My large patch of draba showed up because I was not able to plant a winter cover crop due to the excessive rain last fall. That left the garden area open to all of the various types of weeds.

Draba is not a particularly bad weed. It’s so small and only lives for a short period of time so it can't do much harm in most gardens or farm fields.

The tiny rosette of leaves are only about an inch or two across.

It can become a nuisance in greenhouses where it is able to drop seed in containers and grow there. It also sometimes shows up in landscape nursery pots. 

The plant leaves have an acrid taste that people long ago took for a sign of being medicinal in some way. It got its name whitlow grass from its use in treating whitlow disease, a type of herpes infection of the fingers. Nail wort is another name, alluding to its healing properties for infected fingernails. 

It’s possible that conditions in our area last fall may have been just right for draba seed germination, and  combined with optimum growing weather this spring, caused an abundance of these early white flowers. 

Watch for them blooming in gardens, in fields and along roadsides this spring. They will only be out for a little while before they fade and other spring flowers take their place.