Floral Abundance Promotes Pollinators
Like most gardeners, I welcome any excuse to grow more flowers. Therefore, it’s very good news that by raising as wide a variety of blooms as possible, we are doing our bit to aid and abet pollinators. Native pollinators and European honeybees alike are currently endangered by loss of habitat, virulent diseases that attack weakened insects, and widespread pesticide use and abuse. This is bad news for people who enjoy eating a variety of food, since a good third of the most popular human crops require insect pollinators, from almonds to zucchini.
While bees get a lot of the press, their distress is shared by dozens if not hundreds of native pollinators, from mosquitoes (which pollinate blueberries and bog orchids) to bats (which pollinate night bloomers, such as datura and agave). Birds too, though they mostly pollinate sunset-colored flowers with little or no fragrance. Here in the Northwest, hummingbirds prefer tubular flowers such as those on our native honeysuckles. Even butterflies do their part, though lacking in pollen-transporting abilities, chiefly drawn to nectar-rich flowers like buddleia as well as columbines, thistles, and goldenrod.
More Blooms Mean Better Bugs
When diverse and abundant pollinator populations thrive, so do farm and garden crops of many kinds, from berries and tree fruit to the squash and cabbage families. For instance, when notoriously productive zucchini plants fail to set fruit, it’s usually because there are too few pollinators around. A zucchini can be fully pollinated by 10-15 visits from a native squash bee, but it might take 2-3 times that for a less efficient honeybee to accomplish the same task. Lacking that volume of traffic, zucchini will form incompletely, failing to fully develop. Thorough pollination results not only in more fruits and vegetables, but often in significantly larger ones. Thus, supporting a wide variety of pollinators will positively impact our garden’s fruitfulness.
Naturally enough, many native pollinators prefer nectar and pollen from native plants, but many will also forage happily on non-native ornamentals of many kinds. Each specific pollinator has its own preferences but they also share some general favorites, so you don’t need a text book to create and enticing habitat. Pollinators that congregate on native huckleberries will also visit blueberries and other ericaceous plants, from heathers and heaths to salal and manzanitas. Those that thrive on native roses or columbines or penstemons will also feed happily on more ornamental versions, though single blossoms will be more heavily visited than doubles, which can be difficult for pollinators to access.
Pretty & Practical
Some folks think of native plants as frumpy, but there are some serious showboats amongst them. Here in the maritime Northwest, various species of California lilac (Ceanothus) provide sheets of brilliant bloom from spring into summer. Puget Blue forms a rounded mound some 6 feet high and wide, covered with fine textured, deep green foliage and lake blue flowers in astonishing abundance, while Joyce Coulter forms a wide, spreading mound smothered in soft blue and compact Snow Flurry blooms in icy white. All kinds and colors of Ceanothus are prized by all kinds and sizes of bees which flock to feed on the abundant nectar, while several native butterflies feed on the crisp, crinkled foliage.
Ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor) is one of my own favorite natives, spilling its creamy floral fountains in May and June (usually). Deciduous and arching in form, ocean spray can reach to 20 feet, though 10 is more typical. It’s a butterfly favorite too, both as a larval host and nectar producer, making it equally popular with native bees. So is the native Pacific rhododendron, which is also a larval butterfly host and a magnet for hummingbirds as well as bees and butterflies in blossom season.
Handsome & Toothsome
Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) is a stunner from mid spring into summer, its dangling clusters of blossoms attracting birds, bees and butterflies alike. The red forms in particular are favored by hummingbirds, which often dive bomb each other in fierce territorial disputation. Handsome serviceberry (Amelanchier species) can be shrubby or form small trees, covered in spring with fluffy off-white flowers followed by tender fruit that tastes as good to birds as humans.
Serviceberry nectar attracts hummingbirds as well as native bees and butterflies, some of which also use the plant as a larval host. Humble salal is no stunning beauty, but the glossy foliage is a flower arranger’s staple and a butterfly staple as well as a larval host, and the nectar is appreciated by native and honeybees. Visiting Monarch butterflies will flock to the native Northwestern milkweeds, especially Asclepias speciosa, which can be grown throughout the maritime regions.
Garden Variety Nectar Sources
Many non-native garden plants will find plenty of takers when in bloom, especially long flowering catmints. These easy to please perennials produce soft blue flowers over a very long season and are usually abuzz with a variety of bees, hoverflies, and butterflies which relish both nectar and pollen. All sorts of herbs, from mints to sage, will also nurture pollinators. Both rosemaries and lavenders can attract all kinds of bees, and in the space of half an hour, you might see bumblebees, carpenter bees, digger bees, honeybees, and even the curious little leaf-cutter bees coming to dine.
You’ll also spot lots of kinds of bees on the spiky blue plumes of Russian sage, as well as hummingbirds and butterflies. Sunflowers too attract native bees and butterflies, as do California poppies, sweet alyssum, zinnias, and many other colorful annuals. Grow as many as you can find room for and you’ll have flowers galore and a garden that’s lively and life supporting for the beautiful, fascinating pollinators that bring such bounty to our tables.
Want to know more? Check out these links:
Catmint is such a wonderful little plant, mine is planted in native backyard soil (fairly clayey) and comes up reliably every spring. It’s always buzzing with honey bees during its very long bloom period.
Thanks for such a well rounded list!
One thing I’ve learned recently is that for the ultimate honey bee feast, planting masses of each plant is better than having singles of many different kinds of bee loving plants. Colonies of bees work together to harvest pollen and nectar from a single source until they’re reaped all that is available, and then move on to the next rich resource.