Plants That Support Pollinators’ Full Life Cycle
Pretty flowers are only part of what pollinators need. Here are some native plants that help pollinators thrive in your garden and yard.
Providing a Lifeline for Pollinators
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When we think about planting for pollinators, most often we imagine a little garden bursting with flowers. But beyond nectar for food, pollinators need plants that help with other life stages, including places to shelter and raise their young.
“First we need to consider what is a pollinator,” says Tami Gallagher, master gardener and owner of Home Sown Gardens in Minnesota.
“There is a tendency to only think of bees and butterflies, but moths, wasps, bats, birds, beetles, flies are also ecologically important pollinators. (You maybe surprised to learn that even most adult fireflies are pollinators!) So to plant properly, we need to consider what plants benefit individual species at each life stage.”
In the case of monarch butterflies, they need milkweed leaves to lay their eggs on because their larva (caterpillars) eat milkweed exclusively. However, the caterpillars can hang their chrysalis just about anywhere. Once they emerge in butterfly form, they feed from the nectar of many kinds of flowering plants.
Hummingbirds have a different set of needs. “They lay their eggs in trees near their nectar sources, and need access to spiders, whose silk they use for nest building, as well as moss and lichen,” says Gallagher.
Why native plants are vital to pollinators
Successfully planting to help pollinators thrive means a diversity of native plants.
“Both bees and butterflies require nectar, which many blooming flowers can provide,” says Mary Phillips, head of the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife. “However, 35 to 60 percent of native bees are pollen specialists that require pollen from specific host plants.
“In addition, many butterflies can only raise their young caterpillars on specific native host plants they have co-evolved with over time.”
Native, solitary bees need hollow reed plants or loose soil to hole out and lay their eggs. “It’s important not to clear or cut down these plants over the winter,” says Gallagher. “Leave them until late spring, once the eggs hatch.” Some of these plants include, false indigo, Asiatic lily, blazing star and Joe-Pye weed.
Native grasses and sedges are also good choices. “They are probably the easiest and most overlooked way to plant for pollinators,” says Gallagher. “They provide food and habitat cover for many birds and butterfly larva.” Native grasses are easy to find and raise, and usually require minimal watering. Some include big bluestem, blue grama, little bluestem, switchgrass and various Carex species.
How To Create an Ideal Pollinator Garden
You can plant for pollinators’ full lifecycles by:
- Growing plants that provide nectar and pollen sources, including keystone native plants. Keystone plants are those that are the backbone of an ecosystem, because they support many kinds of life. Without them, ecosystems collapse. There are a handful of plants that support a huge variety of pollinators throughout their lifecycles, such as the ones listed below.
- Providing a water source.
- Situating the gardens in sunny areas with wind breaks.
- Creating larger pollinator targets, like clusters of blooming native plants.
- Planting species that bloom at different times of year, to ensure continuous flowers through three seasons.
- Not using plants treated with neonicotinoids or other chemicals harmful to insects.
Here are 10 plants that together support a diversity of pollinators throughout their various life cycles, chosen for Family Handyman by the National Wildlife Foundation’s Garden for Wildlife. You can also put your zip code into the NWF’s Native Plant Finder for a more tailored list of native plants suited to your area.
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Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) hosts up to six butterfly species, plus its nectar provides food for many other butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. Its bright-red blooms add a pop of color in the garden from July to October. This member of the bellflower family grows best in moist soil in part shade to full sun. Best in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3 to 9.
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Native to many states, ox-eye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) supports high numbers of pollinators including birds, butterflies, bumblebees, hummingbirds, moths and other beneficial insects. It’s a host plant to five pollen bee and three butterfly species. Expect bright yellow daisy-like blooms from June to September. Best in Zones 3 to 9.
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Part of the buttercup family, eastern columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a host and nectar plant for many species of butterflies, birds and bees. These perennials grow two feet tall with showy red and yellow flowers. They thrive in moist, well-drained soil and part shade, blooming from March to July. Best in Zones 3 to 8.
Orange Butterfly Milkweed
Milkweed is one of the most talked-about pollinator plants. It’s a great host and nectar plant for butterflies, birds and bees.
Milkweed is famous for hosting monarch butterflies, but it also hosts a dozen other species of butterfly larvae. Orange butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is known for its large, bushy, flat-topped clusters of yellow to bright-orange flowers. It thrives in dry to moist soil, full sun, and blooms from June to September. Best in Zones 4 to 9.
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), AKA bee balm, is a wildflower in the mint family. This nectar plant hosts up to a dozen kinds of butterflies and three pollen bee specialists. It blooms from May to September, giving pops of purple throughout the summer.
Plant in moist, well-drained soil in sun to part shade. As a bonus, you can make Earl Grey tea from the leaves. Best in Zones 4 to 9.
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“Sweet goldenrod is a powerhouse plant,” says Phillips. It supports up to 104 butterfly and moth species, along with 42 pollen specialist bees.
This low maintenance, native herbaceous perennial grows two-to-three-feet-tall arching stems of yellow flowers, which bloom from July to October. Plant sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora) in moist, well-drained soil in sun to part shade. While some goldenrods can spread aggressively, this one does not. Best in Zones 4 to 10.
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Another powerhouse, calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) supports up to 100 butterflies and moths, plus 33 pollen specialist bees. It blooms from August to October, with branching clusters of short-stalked flowers. Plant in moist, well-drained soil in sun to part shade. Best in Zones 4 to 9.
While forked bluecurls (Trichostema dichotomum) support many types of bees in the pollination stage, two pollen specialist bees especially rely on this member of the mint family. Its distinct bluish curls bloom from August to November, supporting wildlife throughout the fall months. Plant in moist, well-drained soil. Best in Zones 5 to 11.
This six- to 12-foot shrub hosts up to 23 species of butterflies and months. A member of the Rubiaceae family, buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) brings flowers with spherical bursts of white or pale pink from June to September.
Butterflies, birds and bees benefit from its nectar, as well as the shelter provided by its bushy branches. Plant in moist to wet, well-drained soil in part shade. Best in Zones 5 to 10.
An herbaceous perennial, blue mistflower (Conoclinium Coelestinum) is a source of nectar for butterflies, birds and bees. The carpenter-mimic leafcutter bee in particular requires this plant to thrive. It grows up to three feet high, with small, bright-blue or violet disk flowers, which bloom from July to November. Plant in sun to part shade. Best in Zones 5 to 10.