Flowers That Shirk Their Duty

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Small but plentiful sedum flowers offer a bee buffet

Why Pollenless Plants Are Pointless

In recent years, gardeners have found more and more sunflower seed packets labeled as ‘pollen free’ and ‘best’ for cutting. It’s certainly true that pollen-free blossoms are less messy as cut flowers, lasting longer in the vase and never leaving sticky, oily stains on clothing or table linens. In fact, there’s a strong market for cut flowers that lack pollen, not only for the tidy minded (apparently interior designers and party arrangers love them) but also for the allergy prone. Allergy sufferers can enjoy quite a few flowers that are naturally low in pollen, making them good choices indoors and out. Among these are begonia, cactus, clematis, columbine, crocus, daffodil, dusty miller, geranium, hosta, impatiens, iris, pansy, periwinkle, petunia, phlox, rose, salvia, snapdragon, thrift, tulip, verbena, and zinnia. And of course, those female pollenless sunflowers.

Why females? The pollenless sunflowers have been bred to present only female characteristics, pollen being a guy thing in the plant world. While most of the great sunflower clan bear blossoms that are equally rich in nectar and pollen, a few are male-sterile, lacking pollen by nature. These girly blossoms can still set seed, as long as pollen-bearing kin are growing nearby, and they still provide ample nectar to browsing bees and fellow pollinators. However, bees feed pollen to their larval young, and it’s also an important source of protein. The new pollenless sunflowers are hybridized from their male-sterile kin and cut flower growers are planting them by the millions. As the proliferation of pollenless sunflowers extends to home growers, planting as many pollen-rich varieties as possible would be a kindness to bees.

Sunflowers That Give Back

Though many pollen-free sunflower packets are labeled as such, they aren’t all self declaring cheats. To be sure of planting pollen rich varieties, look for classics like Mammoth Russian and Mammoth Grey Stripe. These big guys produce enormous blossoms on stout stems that can top 10 feet. Giant White Seeded has been handed down for generations thanks to its prodigious seed production. They’ll be visited by pollinators all summer and by birds galore when the seeds ripen. Wine red Velvet Queen, ember dark Red Sun, tawny Soraya, and Giant Sungold are all abundant pollen and nectar producers that are beautiful enough to earn a border position. Autumn Beauty is a lovely seed strain with blooms in sunset tones, from rose to burgundy, coppery oranges and clear old gold. The varied blossoms are bee and bug magnets from August into autumn. So are the dark eyed, sunny yellow flowers on Henry Wild, a multi-branched heritage sunflower that can exceed 6 feet. Towering, big-headed Arikara is a golden-flowered, flavorful heritage seed strain from the North Dakota. Hopi Black sunflowers are a traditional source for dyes in many shades, from burgundy and rose, purple and lavender to blue and black. (Dye colors change depending on the natural mordants used.)

Pollen and nectar rich perennial sunflowers include Helianthus angustifolius, an easy going 6-footer with abundant clusters of 3-inch blossoms from mid to late summer. Helianthus Lemon Queen is similar in size, with sheaves of citrus yellow flowers that continue well into autumn. Even taller Helianthus maximiliani sports showers of golden yellow blossoms from midsummer into fall. All are multi-branched plants, produce ample seed that bring birds flocking to the garden. The perennial sunflowers are best suited for larger gardens where their spreading tendencies will be an asset. In smaller spaces, a lively array of annual sunflowers will better serve the birds and bees—and you!

What Bees Need

Around the country, there are thousands of native bees and other pollinators competing for floral foodstuffs; over 400 species of bees in Washington State alone(!). Though many are generalists at need, most bees prefer their natural diet of, guess what? Native plants! If we want to keep native bees around (and remember, many of them are far more efficient pollinators than honeybees), plant natives. Where space is limited, let them form thickets or hedgerows along the edges of your property; even small clumps of native plants will be beneficial to a wide array of pollinators. Let native groundcover perennials like Tiarella, Tellima and Tolmiea form lacy mats in shady areas, along with unassuming but useful little selfheal (Prunella vulgaris, my granddaughter’s favorite plant, who knows why). Next, add some shrubs, such as salal and snowberry, Indian plum and wild roses, oceanspray and ceanothus, manzanita, mock orange and elderberry. If you’re short on inspiration, check out the Xerces Society’s plant lists for your area, pick some you like the looks of, and start a native pollinator patch.

Despite the international interest in nurturing bees, those fuzzy little honeybees still get the most media attention. According to archaeologists, humans have been enjoying honey for at least a hundred thousand years and bees have been domesticated in various ways for around ten thousand of them. As humans migrated over time, so did honeybees. Along the way, they’ve adapted to many conditions and are now the poster bees for the generalists. Honeybees can and will dig in to any flowers on hand, as long as there’s food to be had. That said, there are quite a few flowers that even they can’t access, notably doubled blossoms, which keep out all but the most determined and strong insects. Breeding for extra large, extra colorful flowers has also had hidden costs, since often these blossoms produce little or no pollen or nectar since their energy budget is blown on bling. If bees could ask, they’d probably say’ “Keep it simple!” since single flowers offer more nutrients than snazzier blooms. Onward, right?


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3 Responses to Flowers That Shirk Their Duty

  1. Tonya says:

    So lovely! We are on our 4th Season of having Mason Bee Houses and taking care of the cocoons during the winter. The last season we harvested 1000 cocoons in Ballard! Exciting and fun to watch!

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