Planting for Pollinators

Bring beneficial birds, bees and butterflies to your garden by growing plants and flowers they love.
Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

Tiger swallowtail butterflies feed on the nectar of many wild and cultivated flowers. They're often found in parks and deciduous woodlands.

Photo by: Photo by Lynn Coulter

Photo by Lynn Coulter

Tiger swallowtail butterflies feed on the nectar of many wild and cultivated flowers. They're often found in parks and deciduous woodlands.

Wonder where the wild things are? Scientists say Monarch butterflies are disappearing, along with honeybees and many other bee species, and cite everything from severe weather to loss of habitat to disease as contributing factors.

Pollinators like birds, bees and butterflies are vital to our food supply, but they also add incredible beauty to the world. We can’t solve their problems overnight, but we can help them by growing plants they need for food and shelter.

Native plants and wildflowers are great choices for pollinators. It’s best to include a mix of flowers, vines, grasses, trees, shrubs and bulbs. Use annuals and perennials for successive waves of blooms and seeds; this will help keep your wildlife buffet open throughout the growing season.

How to Attract Butterflies

Butterflies prefer orange, red, yellow, pink or purple and they’re drawn to flowers with flattened tops or to tubular-shaped flower clusters. It’s best to grow your flowers in masses to help butterflies find them more easily.

Successful butterfly gardens should offer host plants for butterfly larvae (caterpillars) as well as nectar-producing plants for the adults. Leave a weedy patch or two in your landscape, if possible—Monarch caterpillars feed only on milkweed plants, while others munch on clover, thistle, leaves or grasses.

If you’re concerned about caterpillars eating holes in your ornamental or edible plants, try growing extras, and try not to stress over ragged-looking foliage. Tattered leaves are a small sacrifice to make for the colorful, fascinating butterflies they become. And remember: Never use chemicals on plants that pollinators visit. You don’t want to harm or kill the guests you've invited to dine.

Plants for Pollinators

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Spring Bloomer: Hepatica

Kim Eierman, environmental horticulturist and founder of EcoBeneficial! recommends including some native plants that bloom in spring, summer and fall to attract bees and other pollinators. Hepatica is a tiny, low-growing plant whose white, pink or blue flowers open as early as late winter or early spring. 

Spring Bloomer: False Indigo

Common to much of central and eastern North America, Baptisia australis, false indigo, can be found growing wild in open meadows, along streams and on the borders of forests. The plant produces striking flower spikes that hover over bright green foliage.

Spring Bloomer: Goat's Beard

An easy-to-grow plant with fine-textured, feathery blooms, Aruncus dioicus, goat’s beard or bride’s feathers, resembles Astilbe, but grows larger and is a perennial native to the Eastern U.S.

Spring Bloomer: Beard Tongue

Drought tolerant and deer resistant, Penstemon digitalis, bearded tongue, produces lovely white tubular flowers which stand out against its red leaves. It attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

Spring Bloomer: Spiderwort

Tradescantia virginiana, spiderwort, is a clump-forming perennial which grows well in moist, acidic soil with full to partial shade. The flowers, which are violet-blue to purple, bloom from late May to early July.

Spring Bloomer: Stonecrop

Stonecrop, Sedum ternatum, is a low-growing, spreading, succulent groundcover that produces white, star-shaped flowers in the spring. 

Summer Bloomer: Blanket Flower

If you are looking for a plant with a long blooming season, blanket flower, Gaillardia, is an excellent choice with its daisy-like flowers offering shades of orange, red and yellow to highlight your garden. 

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Summer Bloomer: Culver's Root

Veronicastrum virginicum, Culver’s root, is a perennial wildflower that is ideal for moist soil and produces white blooms from mid- to late summer.

Summer Bloomer: Swamp Milkweed

A plant that does well in floodplains and wet meadows, swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) produces bright pink flowers in the summer and is a magnet for bees and butterflies.

Summer Bloomer: Blue Vervain

Verbena hastata, blue vervain, is a drought-resistant flowering herb often used by herbal healers as a tea to treat joint pain and other ailments. It grows along roadsides and in grassy fields and blooms between June and September.

Fall Bloomer: Aster

Native to almost every area of the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, New England aster, grows easily in gardens with full sun and good air circulation. These tall and majestic plants produce deep blue to purple blooms and can continue to flower after early frosts.

Fall Bloomer: Goldenrod

This delightful wildflower makes hillsides look like Impressionist paintings in late summer and early fall, but is maligned because it blooms at the same time as ragweed. Ragweed pollen is what mucks up your sinuses; goldenrod pollen is made to be carried by bees and butterflies, not wind.

Fall Bloomer: Gentian

Notable for their large, trumpet-shaped flowers, which are often an intense blue, soapwort gentian, Gentiana saponaria, is a hardy plant which can grow in full sun or partial shade and is popular in rock gardens.

Fall Bloomer: Mist Flower

An attractive plant which blooms in late summer to fall, mist flower spreads easily and produces clusters of blue, violet or white flowers, which can grow up to three feet in height. It prefers moist areas in zones 4 to 9. For more recommendations on native perennials that attract bees, visit EcoBeneficial!

How to Attract Bees

Bees are drawn more to single blossoms than doubled types, and seem to prefer blues, purples and yellows. Avoid keeping your garden too neat; like other pollinators, bees like areas that are natural, overgrown and even weedy. As with butterflies, grow plants for bees that will bloom in succession, so there’s a steady supply of food (nectar and pollen). Native species and wildflowers are ideal choices for a bee garden.

How to Attract Birds

Bird watchers don’t need to be encouraged to plant bird-friendly gardens. They already know how much pleasure these winged visitors provide, with their beauty, movement and songs—not to mention how much fun it is to watch birds build nests, raise their young and teach them to fly.

Birds can also be valuable pollinators, carrying pollen on their heads and wings as they move around the garden. Grow plants that produce seeds, nuts and fruits to attract birds to your garden, and don’t be too quick to deadhead all your flowers. Allow some to set seeds, at least by autumn, so the birds will have plenty to eat as the cold weather arrives and other food sources decrease. Orioles and hummingbirds will visit flowers that produce nectar; they prefer tubular pink, red or orange blooms. Tanagers, some warblers, mockingbirds and grosbeaks may also drink nectar.

For best results, grow plants in “layers,” using tall trees or plants, then medium-sized plants, and finally a layer of short plants. Drifts of leaves underneath tress and shrubs will offer worms and other insects for birds to eat. Use hedges, thorny shrubs or patches of brambles to give birds safe places to escape from predators and build nests. 

Extras That Encourage Pollinators

  • A bird bath, kept clean and filled with fresh water.
  • Feeders stocked with a good quality seed mix and/or sunflower seeds.
  • A few flat rocks in a sunny spot, so butterflies can bask. 
  • White or pale yellow flowers; night-bloomers like moonflowers; and flowers with rich perfumes, for nocturnal moths.

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