By Samantha Burbach, Director of Education & Programming – 06/24/2021
This week we celebrate pollinators and everything they do for us. Insects, most notably bees, butterflies, birds, and even small critters help move pollen from flower to flower, whether they mean to or not, which results in pollination of the flower and development of fruit. This is important for the survivability of flowers because within those fruits are seeds to grow more plants. This is important for humans and other animals as well because about 75% of the fruits and vegetables humans eat are dependent on pollinators doing their thing – pollination!
To celebrate Pollinator Week this year, why not give your local pollinators the gift of some of their favorite flowers!? You can grow flowers for pollinators in a small container or in a larger garden bed; no matter how large or small your pollinator garden is, if you plant their favorites, they will come!
Before we talk about some specific flowers to grow for pollinators, let’s quickly discuss what pollinators are looking for in a flower. The primary reason that pollinators visit flowers is to get a drink of nectar, which is a sugary liquid that serves as a primary food source for many insects and some birds, such as hummingbirds. Some pollinators use pollen as a food source as well (flowers have even evolved to create a surplus of pollen if their primary pollinators tend to eat the pollen), but most pollinators move the pollen around by accident. Flowers that rely on creature pollination (rather than wind pollination) have evolved to produce higher stores of nectar and sweet fragrance to attract pollinators. To provide for pollinators, plant a variety of nectar-rich flowers that bloom throughout the growing season so there is always a source of food for these helpful creatures.
10 pollinator favorites to grow in your garden!
1. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
This native plant is a pollinator magnet, attracting bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds. The leaves are an important food source for monarch butterfly larvae (caterpillars) as they only feed on leaves in the milkweed (Asclepias) family.
2. Bee Balm (Monarda spp.)
There are many varieties of bee balm, from the native wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) to the many cultivated varieties, and they are all well-loved by bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Bee balms come in a range of colors, varying in shades of reds, pinks, corals, purples, and white, and vary in size from 1’ tall to 4’. They are a member of the mint family so they do spread easily, but they are also very tolerant of dividing so you can keep their size down and spread them to other gardens or share with friends if they seem to be forming a large colony.
3. Coneflower (Echinacea spp.)
Coneflowers, especially the straight native species Echinacea purpurea and E. pallida, are wonderful nectar-rich flowers attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Once the flowers have been pollinated, the seeds are a wonderful food source for birds such as goldfinches. It is important to note than many newer varieties of coneflowers, especially double flowered varieties, are not good pollinator attractors due less nectar production and/or inaccessible nectar.
4. Zinnia (Zinnia elegans)
Zinnias are a beautiful and very easy-to-grow annual that can be direct-sown into the garden after all chances of frost have passed. They come in many colors and sizes, although the single flowered zinnias (where the yellow disc florets are easily seen in the center) are preferred over the double flowered zinnias because the nectar is easier to access. Zinnias are beloved by butterflies and hummingbirds and will continue to flower throughout the season if spent flowers are removed.
5. Salvia (Salvia spp.)
Annual or Perennial
Salvias, also commonly know as sage, make up a large genus of flowering plants that are adored by pollinators. There are a number of species that will grow as perennials in our zone, as well as many species that we must grow as annuals because they do not survive our winters. These spike flowers range in color from purples, blues, pinks, reds, and white. Hummingbirds and bees especially love the tubular flowers on salvias.
6. Beardtongue (Penstemon spp.)
The tubular flowers of penstemon are magnets for bees, who can be found tucked all the way inside the flower, and hummingbirds. Penstemon species with white, blue, or purple flowers (about 4/5 of all penstemon species) are primarily pollinated by bees while red and pink flowered species are primarily pollinated by hummingbirds.
7. Butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.)
Perennial (woody stems often need to be cut back to the ground in spring once new growth emerges)
As the name implies, butterflies cannot resist the flowers of butterfly bush! The flowers have a sweet fragrance that draws the butterflies in and a nice supply of nectar to keep them happy. Hummingbirds may also be spotted taking a drink from these nectar-rich flowers.
8. Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus)
Cosmos are a beautiful flower that are easily grown from seed directly in the garden. The flowers come in varying shades of pinks, reds, lavender, and white, all with a yellow center. Cosmos are heavy bloomers, beloved by bees and butterflies, that will produce flowers until frost, especially if you deadhead spent flowers.
9. Liatris (Liatris spp.)
The tall spikes of florescent violet flowers of native liatris are irresistible to butterflies, moths, and bees. Liatris species are also host plants for two moths, Schinia gloriosa and Schinia sanguinea, that feed exclusively on the plant.
10. Lantana (Lantana camara)
Lantana is a carefree annual that loves the heat and tolerates drought quite well making them a very low maintenance plant in your garden. As a tropical plant, they come in bright colors, varying in shades of pinks, reds, oranges, yellows, and purples, as well as pastel shades including white. Butterflies and hummingbirds love these nectar-rich flowers that bloom continuously throughout the season, especially if spent flowers are deadheaded.
Whether you have a container on your deck or porch, or some space in a garden bed, there are so many pollinator magnets to choose from to supply bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, and other pollinators with the rich nectar they need.