I was asked to highlight 6 perennials for Pollinator Week and once I got going I couldn’t limit myself. Of course, I want to highlight the natives and nativars we grow but there are also many non-native ornamental perennials that become covered in tons of bees and butterflies throughout the season. And while natives are the best, many people just don’t have the space to have multiple 5-6′ tall plants in their yards. Luckily, we have the option of many nativars that have been bred to be more compact to fit into our smaller gardens.
When you are planning your garden you will want to make sure to have a succession of blooms throughout the season. Another thing to consider is how different flower shapes serve different pollinators. Let’s talk about flowers that draw in many different types of insects.
Many flowers fall into the daisy type category. These flowers are easy for the insects to land on while they are feeding. The center of the flower is exposed and the pollen and nectar are readily accessible. Some flowers, such as asters, kind of ‘refill themselves’ with nectar as they are being visited rather than only filling once a day which means they are especially valuable for providing food.
Lets start with Echinacea. In the past they were only available in white and purple but they come in all sorts of colors now. When I think of a classic coneflower, I think of the taller ones like ‘Ruby Star’, ‘Magnus’, ‘White Swan’ and of course one of our native coneflowers, purpurea. If you need a compact variety you still have many choices. My favorite smaller coneflower is ‘Purple Emperor’. It is incredibly floriferous and the blooms are picture picture perfect.
When the echinacea is blooming in the greenhouses the butterflies flock to them and in the winter the seed-heads will provide food for the birds.
Gaillardia is a drought tolerant prairie plant that handles full sun and hot conditions well. If kept deadheaded, they will continue to bloom most of the season. In the greenhouse they are always covered in many buzzing bees from bumblebee to sweat-bees.
A very underused perennial is Helenium. I am surprised that it isn’t more popular but as people discover it they will love it. It is very hardy, disease resistant and it flowers for a long time. We carry the Mariachi series which are nativars and bloom in a range of colors from yellow to red. The flowers are about the size of a nickle and cover the entire top of the plant.
Tubular flowers very in length but generally can only be accessed by pollinators with long tongues or by ones that are small enough to crawl inside the flower.
To get the nectar some short-tongued insects will cut a slit near the base of the flower and drink the nectar from there. Many plants from the mint family have tubular flowers. That said, some of the best nectar sources for our pollinators are members of the mint family. These plants tend to bloom almost all summer long especially if you remember to deadhead them as the flowers fade. Agastache, nepeta (catmint), monarda (beebalm) and salvia are all long blooming members of this prolific family and all are pollinator magnets.
Flowers can be even more complicated. Turtlehead has a flower that must be pried open to access. It can only be pollinated by medium to large bees. Because of that, it insures pollination because the bee cannot avoid crossing over the anthers and stigmas as it goes in and out of the bloom. It is kind of fun to hear a flower buzzing and then see the bee crawl out of it.
Asclepias is another complicated flower. They have a very unique shape and very sticky pollen. Medium to large pollinators are needed to carry the heavy, sticky pollen from one flower to another.
This is also one of the most well known larval host plants. A larval host is a plant that supports the larval stage of the insect. Asclepias supports the Monarch butterfly.
Do you know what other plant are larval host plants? Many trees and shrubs support butterflies and moths. My linden tree hosts over 100 different species of insects including the eastern Swallowtail butterfly. Aren’t they pretty?
Linden flowers are also a great source of nectar for adult insects like this honeybee.
Our native elderberry supports over 30 different species including the Polyphemus and Cecropia moths.
When you set about to create your pollinator friendly garden look at the whole picture. Think about how you can support the life-cycle of not only a monarch butterfly but any of our native insects. A pollinator friendly garden is a great way to attract not only insects but birds and other wildlife for you to enjoy.