Plants for Pollinators
At a time when pollinators are struggling, it can be beneficial for the environment to grow species that will provide butterflies and bees some much needed support. As a bonus, many plants attractive to pollinators are also beneficial for people.
When we think pollination, most of us picture honeybees buzzing around a blossom. Few imagine lemurs and monkeys high in the jungle canopy, bats and moths in the silver moonlight, hummingbirds swooping in to hover and suck, butterflies and small flies in the heat of noon, or wasps, beetles, and possums at all hours. Nature’s need for pollination has led to thousands of unique relationships between plants and animals.
Bring in the Butterflies
Nearly everywhere, gardeners enjoy attracting beautiful butterflies. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) draws them in with bunches of slender cone-like flowers. The butterfly bush (Buddleija davidii), with its fragrant elongated flower clusters of pink, lavender, white, or purple, is invasive but has become common in many areas.
Among the most attractive flowers to butterflies are sedums like autumn joy (Sedum telephium), red valerian (Centranthus ruber), and weedy knapweed (Centaurea sp.), a relative of thistles. Most vervains, such as Verbena bonariensis with its multiple purple flowers on stiff, wiry stems, are extremely rich in nectar. Wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare), like many of the herbs, thrives in Mediterranean climates. The delicate, pink flowers are a treat for butterflies as well as bees. Plus, the leaves make a delicious addition to many dishes.
Plant some food plants for caterpillars, too. Hops, holly, and meadow grasses feed the hungry young of many Lepidoptera, while crucifers like broccoli and mustards nourish caterpillars of white cabbage butterflies (Pieris brassicae).
Busy Bees are Best
Hundreds of species of wild bees and bumblebees contribute to pollination, but let’s focus on honeybees. Offering lots of flowers they like draws bees to your plants. That’s a surefire way to assure that fruit trees, berries, cash crops, and your veggie garden can all reach their goals of maximum growth and productivity. Plus, a bountiful harvest of honey never made anyone mad.
Colony collapse disorder killed off 42 per cent of North America’s beehives in 2015. Neo-nicotinoid pesticides kill bees by the billions. Other insecticides, mites, loss of habitat, climate stress, and weed-killing glyphosate are all implicated. Changing climate often means a disparity between colony food needs and the time and place nectar plants bloom. Without bees, the only way to pollinate many important food crops is by hand (feather dusters are used already in badly polluted parts of China). Imagine the labor costs.
Avoiding chemicals, buying local honey to support beekeepers, and growing bee-friendly plants all make a difference. With even a few square meters, a sweet habitat is easy to create and maintain. Many city dwellers tuck in a few herbs in a pot by the door, on a balcony, or in hanging baskets. For folks with more land, the options are limitless.
Bulbs for Springtime
For bee-friendly flowers in spring and early summer, plant bulbs in the fall. Sunny yellow winter aconia (Eranthus sp.) blooms very early and thrives in a wide range of climates but can be invasive. Ankle-high and usually dark indigo, grape hyacinths (Muscari sp.) also bloom early and spread easily. They do fine from rainy coasts to semi-desert. Alliums of all sorts, including onions, garlic, and leeks, do well in cool climates. Bees visit all of them but prefer the ornamental alliums with purple blooms. Crocus, especially C. Luteus, is a bee favorite too.
Many popular annuals are also bee magnets. From desert to wet forest, bright orange California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) reseed multiple generations each year. Love-in-a-mist (Nigella) is in the buttercup family. It likes cool, damp spots and returns each spring with blue, lavender, or white blooms in a mist of feathery leaves. The black seeds are used as a culinary herb from India to Turkey. Zinnias (Zinnia elegans) decorate the sunny garden with bright patches of color for many months and attract butterflies as well as bees. Portulaca (Portulaca grandiflora) and its relatives are annual succulents that form open, thigh-high bushes. The small, brilliant blossoms are real eye-poppers. They do well in hot, dry weather but are not at all fussy. Heliotropes (Heliotroipum sp.) are an old-time favorite in the borage family, with bunches of small flowers in pinks and purples that bees adore. Cosmos (Cosmos caudatus) thrive in rich, fertile soil. The colorful flowers bob in the sunshine until late fall. Asters (Aster sp.), seeded early, are a fall-blooming gift to bees.
Many perennials and shrubs produce blossoms rich in nectar, and those with clusters of small florets offer a feast for bees. Heathers (several genera of the Ericaceae family) and blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) are ideal where summers are rainy, but they’re hard to kill with neglect even in hot weather. Various species of elderberries (Sambucus sp.) appreciate sunny spots close to water and grow wild as small trees in some places. They produce large clusters of bee-friendly white florets. In some parts of Europe, these floral umbels are coated in batter and fried, and the tiny, dark purple berries can be cooked down and strained to make delicious syrups and jams with powerful anti-viral properties.
Most of the sages (Salvia sp.) produce colorful bee-friendly flowers on small bushes. Summersweet (Clethra sp.) grows slowly to form large bushes with deep green leaves and a dense array of pale floral clusters in summer. It survives deep freezing and hot summers, partial shade or full sun, and likes acidic soil. Knautias, especially K. macedonica, produce red and purple pincushion-type flowers that are very attractive to bees. Grow them in full sun and in well-drained, slightly alkaline soil.
Bee-friendly Herbs of Many Uses
Thousands more beautiful pollinator-friendly cultivars are available at local nurseries, the place for good advice and for plants that will thrive where you grow. Floral colors bring as much joy to us as to pollinators, though I personally most appreciate plants that offer multiple benefits. Here are a few in that category that you may enjoy.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a tough survivor, with umbels of bright yellow flowers usually crawling with bees from sunrise to dark. It produces a fine edible root and tasty seeds for bread, pastries, and freshening the breath. Dill and anise, fennel’s close relatives, are equally attractive to bees.
Borage (Barago officinalis) produces lots of nectar. Historically, it’s been planted to increase honey production. It’s also great as a companion plant alongside tomatoes and cabbages because it helps to ward off harmful insects and worms and can improve the overall health of the plants that grow around it. Easy to grow from seed, borage blooms into the fall. The hardy survivor will self-seed once you get it going.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is a close relative of borage. Comfrey has leaves valued since medieval times for herbal compresses to speed both wound healing and the knitting of broken bones. Now, we know the leaves are high in allantoin, which helps cells multiply. You can use it to treat burns and bug bites too. As with borage, its carrot-like roots bring up buried minerals and deliver key nutrients including potassium and nitrogen to soil. Leaves can be used as mulch and to slow spreading. Leaves contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids that are thought to be carcinogenic and known to cause liver damage, so don’t eat them.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) flower early in almost all regions and climates. When the weather is warm enough for bees to fly, purple chive blossoms are already producing nectar for them. These perennial alliums produce for many years and are easily propagated by dividing off the small bulbs. Chopped stems and flowers up the flavor of salads and other dishes.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is definitely a favorite of bees. In fact, its genus name, Melissa, means “honeybee.” They spread easily and tough it out through abuse and drought, while producing leaves for teas and recipes. The leaves are antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, an anti-oxidant, a sedative, and smell great. It’s good for insomnia, migraines, hyperactivity, flu, and anxiety.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is a popular perennial herb. It is easy to grow and draws large gangs of buzzing bees as well as some hummingbirds. Equally bee-friendly are parsley, sage, thyme, and marjoram. These tasty herbs all thrive on neglect and each spring rise from the dead by Easter.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) produces clusters of tiny flowers in original white or newer shades like pink and gold. It thrives on neglect. As with self-propagating and bee-positive feverfew, traditional herbalists used teas of this herb to treat colds and fevers.
Lavenders, (Lavandula sp.), both English and French, prefer dry summers. They are beautiful and fragrant, need only an occasional drink in dry weather, and have a long list of traditional uses thanks to their antibiotic compounds. Green algal scum vanishes without chemicals when you cut and tie a bundle of stems, then toss it in a pond, aquarium, or water feature.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) likes sun and well-drained soil, and it lends itself to being grown in a pot as a bonsai that attracts bees from far and wide. Given space, rosemary forms a large woody bush with bunches of bee-attracting purple flowers in summer. A friend claims rosemary oil treats just about any skin problem and is as good as tea tree oil for treating the herpes virus that causes a cold sore.
Depending on where you garden, hundreds more pollinator-friendly and very attractive plants can bring in large numbers of useful critters eager to boost your production. The plants can also increase your quality of life. Their culinary, medicinal, and aesthetic value are simply too great to ignore. Start with tiny plants or seed packets in spring, then stand back and let nature go to work.
Written by Barbara H. Shaw
Barbara Shaw gardens, writes, and makes junk art in Oregon. She earned degrees in zoology, physiology, and journalism, and writes about science, health, growing things, and energy management. She also delights in reading, cooking, photography, eco-travel and has visited 60 countries. Married to a sports journalist, she embraces being a grandmother.