Pollinators – bees, butterflies, wasps, some flies and other insects – need us to grow certain plants. Growing them should be no burden for gardeners. Most are pretty and serve us many ways. Deciding which ones to choose, and finding them, isn’t always easy. Let’s try.
Why bother? The reason to make an effort is bigger than our personal pleasure in watching the dance of butterflies or cute bumblebees rolling around in flower blossoms. The reason is even bigger than our human need for pollinators to make possible at least one-fourth of our food.
The reason is about saving ecosystems and preventing extinctions. While the Eastern Monarch Butterfly tale has become familiar, fewer people know that countless native butterfly, insect, bird (and other) species are endangered for lack of natural habitat and other threats.
North America is home to about 14,000 species of moths and butterflies, a large percentage of which are victims of ecosystem collapses caused by urban sprawl, pesticides, other pollutants, climate changes, and large-scale agricultural methods. Honeybee decline is much publicized but some 4,000 native bee species are literally starving.
Somehow the least we can do is offer up a little nectar, pollen, leaves to chew, and places to lay eggs.
Which plants help the most?
From simplest to very specific choices, this is what we can do:
1. Plant as many flowering plants as possible, with the broadest possible bloom time – spring through fall. Choose plants such as sunflowers, asters, goldenrods, black-eyed Susan and Joe-Pye weed that are known to support many native bees. (The National Wildlife Foundation offers a "Native Plant Finder" feature on its website.)
2. Plant as many native plants as possible, grown as close to home as possible, and as many original “species” as you can find. (Cultivars of native plants, called “Nativars” may or may not serve all the needs of the species that rely upon them; they are second-best choices.)
3. Plant for the caterpillars, especially the specific plants that struggling butterflies require for egg-laying and larval (caterpillar) food. (See list at end of story.)
4. Plant native trees and shrubs that house the most caterpillars, that in turn provide the food that baby birds need for survival. (See list.)
A strategic plan
Plant and animal lives are time- and weather-dependent. Friends of pollinators need to know when the greatest gaps occur (for food, breeding, protection, water) and meet those needs.
Spring gardens and fields show fewer flowers (food sources) than we see in summer. Summer gardens often lack water — shallow dishes and puddles – for parched fliers and crawlers. August and September gardens offer a smaller flower menu – just when pollinators need sugars to prepare for winter.
And too many gardeners and homeowners clean up all the seed heads, dead branches and tree trunks, waning flowers, and leaf or woody “litter” that provide winter habitat.
I asked some pollinator and native plant experts what they would like to see gardeners plant most. Their recommendations might start your own plant shopping list:
• Erin Masterson (Masterson’s Garden Center, East Aurora), a beekeeper educator said, “I would really like to see more people plant Echinacea (Coneflowers), milkweeds, Helenium ... anything that blooms in late summer when other plants have stopped. Bees need nectar and pollen all season. A good meal in late summer helps them get through the dearth.” (For beekeeping education, products, and plant lists, visit here.)
• Dave O’Donnell, of Eastern Monarch Butterfly Farm, focuses on helping the declining monarch butterfly population (among other butterflies). He raises the caterpillars – watch for monarch butterfly “releases” – and he sells Asclepias (Milkweed) plants that caterpillars require.
His advice: “Plant a patch of Swamp Milkweed, especially now, and watch the butterflies lay their eggs on the first young leaves. Later the Baltimore orioles and yellow warblers come to strip the stalks.” (You can find him at the Clarence Market and on Facebook.)
• Lyn Chimera, native plants advocate and gardener, wrote: “One of my favorite natives is Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum virginianum, that hundreds of pollinators love (including the Pearl Crested butterfly). Deer don’t eat it – and it makes tea!”
She also recommends Wild Geranium – Geranium maculatum – that provides very early flowers when the first bees are appearing.
My own favorite pollinator-pleasers: In early spring dandelions and violets are little treasures (in the right places). Some annuals – zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, calendula – really serve up nectar for months, so find a six-pack them. Perennial native Bee-Balm, Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) and daisies help.
Especially for autumn, find and plant these perennials now: Vernonia (New York Ironweed); Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium), sedums of all kinds, asters, and Goldenrod (Solidago – it does not make you sneeze). And my true favorite for all the bees and kin: Veronicastrum (Culver’s Root).
The goal is buzzing, humming gardens with large patches of flowers from spring through fall, as many native plants as possible, no pesticides anywhere near, and sources for water.
The final mission: Let your nursery and garden center growers and owners know that you want to find plants for pollinators – and then buy some. It’s always the right time.
Caterpillar host plants: a sampler
• Pipevine swallowtail: Aristolochia spp. (Dutchman’s Pipe).
• Zebra swallowtail: Asimina triloba (Paw Paw).
• Black swallowtail: Parsley, carrot, dill, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, and Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea).
• Spicebush swallowtail: Lindera benzoin (Spicebush) and Sassafras.
• Baltimore: Chelone glabra (Turtlehead).
• Giant spangled, meadow and variegated fritillaries: Violets.
• Monarch: Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.)
Trees and shrubs for butterflies and moths
Many non-native plants provide no ecological benefit, no food for almost anything. These native plants host many butterfly/moth species (number shown), which supports birds while also serving human landscape needs:
• Quercus (Oaks): 510 species
• Prunus (Cherries): 434 species
• Salix (Willows): 426 species
• Betula (Birches): 388 species
• Populus (Aspen): 357 species
• Vaccinium (Blueberries): 294 species
• And native maples, hickories, elms, pines, basswood, hawthorn and walnut.
* List sources: Native Plant Finder; National Wildlife Federation; and “Bringing Nature Home” by Douglas Tallamy.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant. She and Jim Charlier are the authors of “Buffalo-Style Gardens: Create a Quirky, One-of-a-Kind Private Garden with Eye-Catching Designs” (St. Lynn’s Press, $24.95).