This morning I spent some time sitting in a sheltered spot watching the many bees feeding in our back garden. Have you noticed that some flowers attract far more bees and other pollinators, than others?
I watched the constant hum of several different sorts of bees visiting fruit trees already in bloom. Looking closely, it was as though a cloud of tiny flying bodies surrounded each flowering branch. Below me, the patch of Hellebores had almost as much activity as bees sampled flower after flower.
Ecologists will explain many factors that might make one flower more attractive to bees, wasps, butterflies and hummingbirds than another factor. Certain flower shapes are better fits for the size, design and feeding style of a particular species. Certain flowers may prove more attractive than others or glow with special colors to an insect’s extraordinary sight. But there is also the matter of the taste and quality of the nectar, and the abundance and nutritional value of the pollen.
Have you ever watched a bumblebee enjoy a Hibiscus flower? They climb deep into the blossom and roll around, covering themselves in silky pollen. You might notice bees and butterflies waiting in line to feed from certain flowers while others bloom beautifully, but with hardly a single visit.
In general, native plants in their species form offer more nutrition, and easier access, to pollinators than their ‘nativar’ siblings. A highly hybridized flower, or one selected for an unusual flower form may not appeal as much to our winged friends as their plainer, simpler natural form.
We may be interested in growing the latest and greatest flower introduced to the market, but our pollinator friends will prefer the ones that have fed generations of their ancestors. And the flowers that feed them most satisfactorily will not necessarily be the brightest, flashiest flowers in the garden.
Once you determine to use your bit of land to make a garden that supports wildlife, that determination likely will guide many later choices. It determines what you plant, how you manage the space, and how much pleasure you derive from the amazing activities unfolding there every day with wildlife visitors.
Since many of us are choosing what to buy from the garden center, and what to grow in the season ahead, allow me to offer a few of my favorite plant selections to support pollinators. Although naturalists tell us that native plants are the most supportive of our insect species, observation has shown me that some plants native to other continents make them happy, too.
Trees form the framework of our gardens and also support the most different species of wildlife. Many native North American trees support 100 or more species of butterflies and moths in addition to other insects, birds and other small animals.
Some of the earlier blooms in spring come on red maples, willows, native plums and black cherry, Prunus serotina, and every sort of fruit tree from apples to peaches. Even trees that don’t have noticeable or showy flowers like oaks and gum trees feed the bees. Their leaves support caterpillars, which make possible our butterflies and moths later in the season.
Sweetbay Magnolia provides excellent nectar and pollen, as do the redbuds and dogwoods of early spring. If you have nothing else in your garden, a few well-chosen trees will feed a multitude. These nutritious flowers may last for only a few weeks in the spring, but the huge number of individual flowers support pollinators before many other species of flower bloom.
Flowering shrubs also extend the season and offer thousands of tiny, nectar rich flowers for a wide variety of pollinators. Mahonias and Star Magnolias begin the season in late winter, generously feeding all those early emerging bees. Camellias, although Asian, sometimes have several bees feeding on the same flower at once. Since there are varieties that bloom in the autumn and into the winter months, and others that bloom in early spring, it pays to plant a variety of different Camellias.
As with so many flowers, simpler flower forms with the pistil and stamens clearly visible in the center of the flower make feeding easier for pollinators. Fully double flowers with high petal counts can complicate matters for a hungry butterfly or bee.
Three particularly important shrubs for feeding pollinators are the Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, Abelias of all varieties, and Lantana. I have happy memories of childhood summers spent watching bumblebees feeding on Abelia shrubs in my parents’ yard. It wasn’t unusual to find a dozen or more bees at a time feeding and flying from one tiny white trumpet shaped flower to the next.
Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, may not be as familiar to many people. Native in our part of coastal Virginia, this is a wonderful shrub or small tree to grow in a damp spot in your yard, rain garden, or near the bank of a pond or stream. When it blooms in early summer, butterflies, hummingbirds and bees flock to its sweet nectar. It is a larval host for caterpillars, and it attracts many species of birds. Its roots help stop erosion and it provides habitat for many species of wildlife.
Finally, while many grow Lantana as an annual each year, it is actually a fairly large woody shrub in warmer climates. Our established, Lantanas grow taller than us each summer. We cut them back to no more than 10” tall when the Crocus bloom in early spring, and they quickly grow and cover themselves in flowers once again once the weather warms.
Of all the flowers in our summer garden, the Lantana prove the consistent favorites for butterflies. Lantana camara ‘Miss Huff’ is reliably hardy in our area. Several other cultivars have come to market with L. ‘Miss Huff’ as a parent that prove almost as hardy. Look for the ‘Chapel Hill’ series on plant tags if you are in Zone 7b or warmer. L. ‘Bacon and Eggs,’ with pink and yellow flowers in each cluster, has proven hardy in our garden, too.
I also grow Lantana montevidensis in pots and hanging baskets. It grows to 3’-4’ wide and makes a good ground cover, but never grows more than a few inches tall. On this species, the only color flower available is a pleasant light lavender. An exception to the rule about hybrids and cultivars, Lantana flowers may come in different colors, but the form of the flower remains the same.
Lantana belong to the Verbena family. Many different species of Verbena support a variety of pollinators, too. Grow native Verbena hastata, European Verbena bonariensis, which naturalizes here, or grow the common Verbena x hybrida, sold in garden centers each spring for pots and baskets. Generally considered an annual, it often overwinters for us. Verbena canadensis is a somewhat tougher, reliably perennial trailing Verbena. A favorite cultivar is V. ‘Homestead Purple.’ A variety of butterflies, bees, wasps and hummingbirds fly straight for the Verbena in our garden.
Although not native, most any herb offers high quality nectar and pollen for pollinators. Rosemary forms a small woody shrub in our garden and blooms in winter. Once established, the bloom is generous and may continue for months. Beekeepers have traditionally planted herbs such as Lavender, Thyme and Germander specifically for their bees.
Any and every Salvia provides good forage. While my culinary Salvia officinalis rarely bloom, there are many species of ornamental Salvia that bloom from April until October or November in our garden. Hummingbirds especially love Salvias, which with age grow into small, woody shrubs like Rosemary.
Agastache, a member of the mint family, is another popular plant with our pollinators. I may count five or six bees and butterflies feeding on a single plant while other nearby flowering plants host none. There are several different species and named cultivars of Agastache, so there is a wide range of choice in color, size, foliage color, and bloom time.
Any type of mint, including other members of the mint family like Peppermint, Basil, Oregano, Marjoram, Bee Balm and our native Pycnanthemum, or ‘Mountain Mint,’ provide high quality and popular nectar for pollinators. Many, but not all mints spread aggressively. Be aware before you plant anything with the word ‘mint’ in its name, that it will claim as much real estate in your garden as possible. Control it by planting in a large nursery pot sunk into the ground, or give it its own large container on the patio.
Any naturalist will suggest planting Milkweed, Asclepias species, to support Monarch butterfly larvae. But Milkweed flowers are also great favorites of many other butterfly species and bees. Birds use the silky down that blows from its seedpods in the fall. Liatris spicata, a native grown from a corm, is another butterfly favorite and an excellent choice for beautiful and long-lasting flowers that add beauty to the garden while feeding many pollinator species.
There are so many other trees, shrubs, geophytes, vegetables, annuals and perennials that will support wildlife in your yard. There are good choices in any climate and for any horticultural taste.
Many of them naturalize, so that a pot or two bought this year will cover a large area in just a few years. I am thinking of Rudbeckia species. The common Black-eyed Susan feeds pollinators through the summer, and goldfinches and other small birds once the seeds ripen. There are several other native Rudbeckia species beloved by wildlife.
Native Echinacea, Coneflowers, also do double duty feeding first pollinators and later birds. These perennials are well behaved, however, and spread only politely through dropped seed. New plants are easily lifted and moved to another spot.
One of the richest sources of late season pollen and nectar, Goldenrod, Solidago species, support huge numbers of insects, but also spread aggressively. Once planted, you’ll have it for a long time. Just go ahead and dedicate a whole planting bed to it, and then watch for the babies to crop up in other sunny areas of your yard. Who will argue with free plants, right?
With so many excellent choices of nutritious, wildlife supporting plants, you might wonder why we spend money on installing less useful plants in our gardens. We all have our favorites. Our gardens are personal spaces, and we use plants to entertain and delight ourselves as well as to attract and support the many animals that make our gardens lively and ecologically sustainable in the larger web of life.
Different gardeners choose plants for their own very personal reasons. But we can all include at least a few trees, shrubs, herbs and other flowering plants to attract and sustain other visitors to our gardens. And these choices are some of the best currently available.