Plants for Pollinators: A Collection of Favorites
Wildlife gardeners across the country share photos and descriptions of prized native plants that attract pollinators to their yards
Edited by Kelly Senser//Updated 5/17/2013
National Pollinator Week takes place June 17 to 23, 2013. To celebrate, we asked gardeners across the country who’ve created wildlife-friendly habitats to talk about some of their favorite native plants for attracting bees, butterflies, birds and other pollinating species. Following are the descriptions and images they shared.
"Blue mistflower is a favorite of butterflies (white peacock, above). Though it is said to appreciate rich, well-drained soil in full sun, it thrives in our home garden’s extremely alkaline fill. Underneath the fiddlewood tree in the landscape at our place of business, the plant tolerates a good bit of shade."
"In our area, mistflower blooms year-round, with an extra burst in the fall—just in time to drive Florida’s milkweed butterflies [species that lay eggs on milkweed plants, such as monarchs, queens and soldiers] crazy! I can’t help but notice that the mistflower seems especially attractive to the male butterflies. I wonder if its blossoms contain more of the chemical alkaloids the males require to produce pheromones to attract females." —Carol McDonald of Charlotte County, Florida
"Purple passionflower, also known as maypop, is a great plant that is native to much of the eastern United States. With interesting and beautiful blossoms, this climbing vine makes an attractive trellis occupant. It feeds not only local pollinators such as these bees (above), but also people who enjoy its edible fruit."—Gerry Williamson of Walker County, Georgia
“My favorite native plant is the snowberry. In late spring and early summer, both Anna’s and rufous hummingbirds entertain while drinking nectar from its dainty pinkish flowers and vying for dominance. The round leaves are visually pleasing, and other birds often dart out from under its shelter. In the winter, the small white orbs for which the plant is named gleam in the sun, accent cloudy days and even look pretty in the rain. Since snowberry is a Northwest native, it requires almost nothing from me—nature takes care of its needs.”—Christine Southwick of Shoreline, Washington
Silphium perfoliatum L.
"Cup plant is a native plant of the tallgrass prairie with bright yellow blooms from July through September. The large leaves give the plant its name, as they form cups where they meet at the stalk, providing water for insects and small birds. Its coarse texture and size (5 to 8 feet tall) limit its use in a smaller garden, although that hasn’t stopped me. I have it in clay soil in a small, sunny rain garden. Cup plant is easy to grow but difficult to move, so plan carefully. It is great for pollinators (red admiral, above). There is never a day when it is in bloom when it is alone, and if you go out early in the morning you can find bees asleep, nestled in next to the stamen."—Julia Vanatta of Minneapolis, Minnesota
"We’re making honey out here in Southern California. How do we do it? Well, beekeepers are taking advantage of some of nature’s finest resources: flowering native plants! Luckily, the hillsides are covered with blooming natives in the coastal mountains from Santa Barbara down to Baja, including here in Topanga Canyon, home to Topanga Quality Honey. Many California plants have nectar that is delicious to the honeybee. Beekeepers take their bees to a meadow where wildflowers such as largeflower phacelia (above) are blooming in the spring. When those blossoms fade, they move to a hillside of white sage or buckwheat (left), which bloom into fall.
"California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) has an abundance of flowers—creamy white, tinged with pink. As they mature, the flowers turn to a rust color. "Viewing wild hillsides covered with the coppery seed heads of California buckwheat is a uniquely Western experience," wrote Carol Bornstein, co-author of California Native Plants for the Garden. The honey made from this plant is sought for its dark, full-bodied flavor as well as its nutritional value."—Kathy Vilim of Topanga Canyon, California
Upland White Aster
"Upland white aster is actually considered a goldenrod. It possesses small white flowers that various bees, flies, wasps (above) and other insects find hard to resist. It blooms throughout the summer and early fall and adds a nice splash of white to a prairie garden. It does well in my dry, clay soil, but in the wild, it tends to prefer sandy soils and/or limestone areas. It has self-seeded into my garden and is not the most formal looking plant, so I would recommend using it in more ‘natural’ looking landscaping projects."—Perry Eckhardt of St. Charles, Missouri
"Autumn sage produces fiery red blooms that attract hummingbirds, butterflies, moths, bees and dragonflies. Blooming from spring to fall, this colorful and drought-resistant shrub flourishes in 100-degree heat and is hardy enough to withstand freezing temperatures. Salvia can quickly double in size and is quite skilled in broadcasting its seeds to the surrounding areas—easily growing neighboring volunteers. Be sure to have your camera handy while visiting the salvia since you’re guaranteed to greet several pollinators in a matter of seconds!"—Shawnna Donop of Austin, Texas
"When reading up on this plant, one may think pawpaw is the Goldilocks of the plant world. It’s true: To survive, pawpaws need just the right amount of sunlight, water, humidity, acidity and more. But this gardener is giving pawpaws a try. Why? I’m keeping my eye on the prize. The prize is not the delicious and nutritious fruit (not commercially viable due to a short shelf life), nor the lush, velvety brown flowers. Those are bonuses. For this gardener, the prize is zebra swallowtail butterflies; their caterpillars feed on pawpaw."—Helen Yoest of Raleigh, North Carolina
"Most people are familiar with the unearthly pinks and blues of “mophead” hydrangeas, which are native to Japan and among the most popular shrubs grown in gardens around the world. But several hydrangea species are native to North America. Sporting huge white flower heads, Hydrangea arborescens—or wild hydrangea—thrives in the dappled shade of my small, Mid-Atlantic garden. The shrub blooms from mid- to late summer, when most other perennial plants have finished flowering. Unlike the mopheads, which have mostly sterile flowers, H. arborescens provides food for a variety of bees, ants, beetles, flies and butterflies (Eastern tiger swallowtail, above)."—Laura Tangley of Washington, D.C.
New Jersey Tea
"New Jersey tea is a small native shrub that deserves more use in New England gardens! It flowers in frothy white panicles in early summer, and the blooms literally buzz with pollinators of all shapes and sizes, including butterflies, bees, syrphid flies and parasitic wasps. It grows to about three feet high and works well in tough spots, such as sandy or rocky slopes in full sun."—Ellen Sousa of Spencer, Massachusetts
"White crownbeard is a stout, drought-tolerant perennial that is a favorite among southeastern United States native plant gardeners. It is easy to grow from seeds and tolerates a wide variety of conditions, from light shade to full sun, in moist to dry soils. Older plants can form tall, sizable clumps and will make a bold statement in the landscape. The little white daisies are not spectacular but they are borne in large numbers in the summer or autumn and are attractive by their sheer number and in their pure white color with contrasting black anthers. Plants in full flower are pollinator magnets, and they are visited by an extremely wide variety of pollinating insects, including native bees, butterflies, flower flies and wasps. This image shows the flowers being visited by the polka-dot wasp moth, a day-flying tropical moth common in south Florida."—Rufino Osorio of Lake Worth, Florida
Yellow Evening Primrose
"Our favorite pollinator plant in the garden is the yellow evening primrose. This plant produces gorgeous yellow flowers that bloom in the evening (hence its name) and is pollinated by night-flying moths. But interestingly, there is a species of day-flying moth, the five-lined (or white-lined) sphinx moth, that lays its eggs on the primrose so its caterpillars can feed on the plant’s leaves. The caterpillars (left) have markings on them that mimic the shape of the narrow, serrated leaves—fantastically camouflaging the larvae."—Marilyn Marler and David Schmetterling of Missoula, Montana
"Scarlet sage has brilliant red flower spikes and freely reseeds. I keep ours down to a small roar in a tidy bed near the shifting shade of our fiddlewood tree. Hummingbirds and butterflies (mating zebra longwings, above) love scarlet sage!"—Carol McDonald of Charlotte County, Florida
"Having just moved to a townhouse, I no longer have a large garden and planting area, so I’ve converted instead to container gardening on my roof deck. I grow a selection of native plants, chosen for their showy appearance and structure throughout all seasons as well as for the birds, butterflies and other insects that they attract. They remind me of places I like best, our native forests of the Puget Sound region.
"Salal is promoted as being the single best ground cover for Northwest gardens. This plant can be found all over our forest floor and has been long recognized as one of the best foliage plants for flower arranging. It can be grown short, if pruned back, hedged into wavelike drifts or allowed to grow rampant and irregular to five feet or more. It will also grow where almost nothing else will, in deep understory forest groves, moist or dry soils, in full sun or deep shade. It does have a harder time in full sun, but if well watered or near the coast, it can survive. It does not transplant well, but it is generally available at garden centers. Birds and butterflies love this adaptable plant, and I get to enjoy its beauty year-round."—Cathy Curley of Seattle, Washington
"Milkweeds attract many pollinators, including bees and butterflies. There are dozens of Asclepias species native to the United States, some of which are highly endangered. For monarch butterflies, however, these are must-have plants because monarchs will only lay their eggs on milkweeds. Because as many as half the monarchs overwintering in Mexico this past year did not survive, it is imperative that each of us plant Asclepias to help the monarch population recover from this crash."—Carole Brown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
To learn more about the plants mentioned above, including whether they are native to your part of the country, visit the USDA Plants Database or the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. For help selecting pollinator-friendly natives for your region, visit the Pollinator Partnership, which offers free planting guides tailored to specific areas of the United States.
About the Contributors
Carole Brown is a conservation biologist who has spent nearly 20 years designing, installing and maintaining gardens for people who want to share their space with birds, butterflies and other wildlife. She is the author of Ecosystem Gardening. Follow her on Twitter: @CB4wildlife
Cathy Curley, senior operations manager for National Wildlife Federation’s Pacific Regional Center, is an avid gardener and outdoorsperson.
Shawnna Donop is a nature enthusiast and a proponent of xeriscaping as water demands continue to increase in the frequently drought-stricken hill country area of Texas. She incorporates native plants into her Certified Wildlife Habitat, which is completely dependent upon rainwater collection for irrigation. Follow her on Twitter: @Shawnna_Donop
Perry Eckhardt has recently been employed as the Missouri Department of Conservation’s urban forester for the St. Louis area. He has spent the last several years promoting native plants for urban conservation purposes, such as stormwater control. Visit Perry’s photostream on Flickr.
Marilyn Marler and David Schmetterling are avid native plant and wildlife gardeners. David is a fish biologist, and Marilyn is a botanist. David is the author of the Montana Wildlife Gardener blog. Follow him on Twitter: @Wildlifegardenr
Carol McDonald is an active member of the Certified Wildlife Habitat group on Facebook. Both her home garden and family’s place of business are NWF-certified habitats.
Rufino Osorio has a special interest in native wildflowers and is the author of A Gardener's Guide to Florida's Native Plants. He is an active member of the Florida Native Plant Society.
Ellen Sousa is a garden coach, speaker, writer and educator, specializing in natural habitat landscaping. Her Turkey Hill Brook Farm is a Certified Wildlife Habitat and Monarch Waystation. Read Sousa's New England ‘Habitat Gardening’ Blog.
Christine Southwick is a gardener, woodworker and remodeler. A board member of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory, she has a yard bird list of 77 species—and counting.
Laura Tangley is a senior editor at National Wildlife magazine. Her Washington, D.C., garden is Certified Wildlife Habitat #99,694 (of more than 140,000 and growing).
Julia Vanatta has gardened in Minneapolis for more than three decades. During the past eight years, she has been gradually replacing turf grass and non-native plant species in her yard with plants native to the region. She is an active member of the Twin Cities Chapter of Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes.
Kathy Vilim is the author of the Native Gardener blog. "By adding native plants to your yard or garden, you can support biodiversity," she says. "As ‘top dog’ on this planet, the job falls on us to act as good stewards of all we have inherited." Follow her on Twitter: @nativegardener
Gerry Williamson got interested in wildflowers about five years ago, and that became a passion about two years ago. A longtime IT professional and amateur photographer, he’s the creator of USWildflowers.com. Follow him on Twitter: @USWildflowers
Helen Yoest is a garden coach, writer, speaker and designer. Her home garden, dubbed Helen’s Haven, is a Certified Wildlife Habitat. Visit her Gardening with Confidence website; follow her on Twitter: @HelenYoest.