The Best Plants for Pollinators
By Monica Mansfield 9 September 2021
Our pollinators are in trouble and we, as gardeners, have an opportunity to save them. Researchers say if everyone planted just one pot of nectar-rich flowers, it would restore healthy pollinator communities. This patchwork of pollinator-friendly spaces would be enough to rebuild their numbers by offering them plenty of food and shelter.
As nature is taken over by concrete, lack of food and shelter are two of the main reasons pollinators are at risk. Pollution, disease, and the misuse of pesticides are other major contributors to their dwindling populations.
If we don’t do our part to save them, we will see the effects on our harvests and on our ecosystem as a whole. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds are essential to our commercial farms and home gardens. In fact, 75-95 per cent of plants (more than 180,000 different species) rely on them for pollination. Without our helpful friends, we don’t eat. And with such a simple solution available to us, we have no excuse not to act. Besides, who doesn’t love flowers in their garden?
Choosing Pollinator-Friendly Flowers
With so many beautiful flowers out there, it’s important to choose the ones that will have the greatest impact. By following a few guidelines, we can be sure we are making a significant difference in our quest to save the pollinators.
First, be sure to choose plants native to your region. Your local pollinators have evolved with your local plants, and their life cycles are in sync with one another.
Native plants will also thrive in your environment without the use of pesticides, which you should avoid using as much as possible if your goal is to help pollinator communities.
Second, choose plants that bloom at different times of year so there is a constant buffet of nectar laid out for them from spring through fall. If they know there is always food available in your garden, they will be sure to stick around and call your place home.
Speaking of which, be sure to provide shelter and water for them in your garden so they don’t feel the need to go anywhere else. Hollow logs, tree stumps, and bee houses are ideal habitats. A simple bird bath with rocks in it for them to rest on will provide them all the water they need.
Next, be sure to plant groups of flowers in a variety of sizes and colors. This will attract more pollinators than individual flowers planted throughout the garden.
By including many different colors, you will make sure to attract a variety of species. For example, butterflies are attracted to red, yellow, orange, purple, and pink flowers. Bees are drawn to blue, white, yellow, and purple.
Since different pollinators are attracted to different types of plants, you’ll want to include a variety of flowers that specifically attract bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies.
Plants that attract bees include basil, bee balm, borage, cosmos, geraniums, giant hyssops, lavender, lupines, mint, poppies, rosemary, sage, sunflowers, thyme, wild roses, zinnias, apples, cherries, pears, plums, raspberries, strawberries, and willows.
Hummingbirds prefer bee balm, begonias, bleeding hearts, butterfly weed, cannas, columbines, dahlias, delphinium, foxglove, fuschias, geraniums, hollyhocks, impatiens, irises, lilies, lupines, nasturtiums, petunias, sage, salvia, and zinnias.
Butterflies love bee balm, calendula, cosmos, delphiniums, dianthus, hollyhocks, lavender, marigolds, nasturtiums, oregano, sage, shasta daisies, yarrow, and zinnias.
Butterfly larvae, or caterpillars, have their own preferences, which include borage, hollyhocks, milkweed, thistles, and willows.
Now that you have an idea of what to include in your pollinator-friendly garden, let’s go over my top ten favorites in a little more depth.
Top Ten Plants for Pollinators
If you are having a hard time deciding what to include in your garden this year, here are my top ten favorite plants for pollinators. These add beauty and functionality to your garden and help to create a diverse and thriving ecosystem.
Sunflowers are one of my all-time favorites and I look forward to their blooms every year. There are many different varieties. Some grow more than eight feet tall and move to face the sun as it moves. Others have multiple heads per stalk that bloom in a beautiful succession. The birds and bees love them, and we love snacking on their edible seeds. They are annuals in all zones and bloom from late summer until the first frost. You can start them indoors or direct sow them into the garden after the last frost. They get pretty huge and may need staking and supports to keep standing tall as the season goes on.
Nasturtiums are a staple in my garden. They sprawl and spread with their beautiful, edible leaves and flowers that are a spicy addition to salads. Bees, hummingbirds, and aphids love them, so they are also a great trap crop if you are looking for organic pest-control methods. They are annuals in most places but can be grown as perennials in zones 9-11, and bloom from early summer to fall. You can start them indoors or direct sow them in the garden after the last frost.
Lavender is a beautiful and sweet-smelling addition to any garden, and bees love it! It grows well in zones 5-9 and blooms in late spring. It can rebloom in late summer in some regions. It has medicinal benefits and can be used in many beauty treatments. You can start lavender from seed indoors and then transplant it outdoors after the last frost. It loves hot sun and dry soil, so don’t overwater it.
English lavender grows best in cooler climates, while Spanish and French varieties do well in hot and humid climates.
Bees love basil when it blooms, although many people try to prevent blooming by pinching its flowerheads so they get a larger harvest of leaves for pesto and other sauces. However, if left to its own devices, basil will bloom from midsummer to first frost. It can be grown as an annual in most zones, or as a perennial in zone 10 and above. Plant it where it will get six to eight hours of full sun and the soil is rich, moist, and well-draining. Basil is not only delicious in many meals, but also has medicinal benefits.
Milkweed is a host plant and the only food source for monarch butterflies and caterpillars, and should be grown by every gardener who wants to save this endangered species. It can be grown as an annual in most zones, and as a perennial in zones 9-10. It can be started indoors or sown directly in the garden and will bloom from early summer to fall.
Bee balm attracts and feeds all your favorite pollinators — bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds — from late spring through fall in zones 3-9. It prefers sun to partial shade and moist, rich, slightly acidic soil.
Zinnias can be grown as an annual in all zones and attracts bees and butterflies. They bloom 60-70 days after sowing and can be succession planted throughout the season until they die back after the first frost. They prefer sun but will tolerate some shade and need rich, well-draining soil.
Bees love borage. I mean they really, really love borage. Borage can be grown as an annual in all zones and blooms from late spring through summer. It is a very nutrient-rich plant whose leaves taste mildly of cucumbers. You can use its leaves as a garnish, add them to salads, or chop and drop the leaves to feed the other plants in your garden once they are spent.
Cosmos are a beautiful and delightful addition to any garden. They come in a variety of colors and can be grown as annuals in all zones, and possible perennials in zones 9-11. They feed the bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and moths from late spring until first frost. They are very easy to direct sow outdoors. After the last frost, simply scatter their seeds on bare soil in the spring. They are versatile and hardy, growing well in poor soil and drought conditions, and prefer warm, dry weather.
Echinacea, or coneflowers, offer so many benefits that they deserve a spot in everyone’s garden. Not only do they provide nectar to bees and butterflies, but they have powerful medicinal benefits for us. They are hardy perennials that grow well in zones 3-10 and bloom from midsummer through fall. They love the sun, prefer heat, and are drought tolerant. Sow them outdoors a couple of weeks before last frost and they should germinate in 10-20 days.
Now that you have a better idea of how to protect and help our pollinator friends, I challenge you to plant an all-you-can-eat buffet for them in your own garden this year. Every little bit helps.