Planting a Pollinators’ Garden 

14 Apr

Earl Nickel,
Curious Plantsman

One of the joys of gardening is seeing the many types of bees, butterflies, and birds that come a-calling to our bit of paradise. Many of these visitors are there to collect nectar, thereby pollinating those flowers. These pollinators play a pivotal role in our local ecology and there is renewed interest in adding plants to our gardens to attract these vital pollinators.

When enough city gardeners plant pollinator friendly gardens, it creates valuable ‘greenbelts’, providing enough food for pollinators to hop easily from one garden to the next in a given area. Now, with habitat loss still on the rise, and with our pollinator friends facing other environmental challenges, providing sources of nectar and a safe haven becomes all the more important.

Pollinator Plants

While it isn’t necessary to plant only California natives, plants naturally occurring in our local habitats will be high on the list of destinations for local pollinators. Annie’s is a great place to find a wide-ranging selection of California native plants. One of the best Northern California natives is Sticky Monkey Flower (Mimulus aurantiacus).

We grow a very local selection, Pt. Molate, first discovered in our Richmond headlands. It displays all the outstanding qualities of this type of monkey flower. It’s vigorous, very drought tolerant and long blooming. Better yet, it attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds alike. For something a bit different, let yourself be tempted by the bright pink flowering Monkey Flower (Mimulus lewisii x cardinalis).

Though not quite as drought tolerant and deciduous, it puts on an amazing floral show and attracts a steady parade of hummingbirds and bees. Mimulus bifidus ‘White’ is another excellent drought tolerant selection in the Monkey Flower family. Its large, ruffled white flowers are irresistible to humans and pollinators alike.

California Buckwheat (Eriogonum species) is one of the best plants for a pollinators garden. Not only are the flowers on such lovely species as Red Buckwheat (E. grande rubescens) and Seaside Buckwheat (E. latifolium) absolute magnets for bees and butterflies but the seeds are a valuable food source for local songbirds. Red buckwheat produces sprays of tiny, nectar-rich, rosy-pink flowers in summer. These flowers last well into the fall, gradually turning a golden brown. Low silvery foliage provides an attractive base.

Seaside buckwheat is just as attractive, with clusters of pale pink to white flowers that age to a rusty hue in fall. It is an important larval food plant for the Acmon Blue and Hairstreak butterflies, whose numbers are dwindling due to habitat loss. It sports an attractive 1’ x 2’ compact mound of softly felted, spoon-shaped gray leaves. Both species are tough, drought tolerant additions to any garden.

California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica) is one of the very best natives for attracting hummingbirds to your garden. They adore its plenitude of sparkling red tubular flowers. A prolific bloomer, it showcases an endless number of inch and a half, nectar rich flowers from late spring well into the fall. It first produces 18-36” tall stands of soft silvery foliage that slowly spreads out. Needing no summer water and not fussy about soils, this native is perfect to use as a high ground cover. It’s also a great solution for a problem area or a parking strip. Tough as nails, it only needs a good amount of sun to be happy.

Another great native for a sunny dry garden is the lovely Coyote Mint (Monardella species). One of the best varieties is the local M. ‘Russian River.’ Brought to us by the folks at California Flora Nursery, this selection has proven to be a great performer. When in bloom, it is nearly smothered in 2” balls of lavender-colored flowers. These blooms are magnets for bees and butterflies especially, making it a valuable addition to any pollinators garden.

As a bonus, the leaves have a minty fragrance and they can even be used to make an aromatic tea. This 2’x2′ native thrives under difficult conditions and though very drought tolerant, can still prosper where it gets regular moisture. It blooms all summer long and in milder zones, it can still be seen blooming late in the fall, providing much needed food for butterflies especially.

Speaking of minty plants, Hummingbird Mint (Agastache species) is another great selection to attract hummingbirds to your garden. Annie’s grows three wonderful selections.  A. ‘Blue Boa’ first forms a thicket of lightly textured leaves that exude a strong anise fragrance. In summer, foot high cones of deep purple flowers attract a bevy of bees and hummers.

‘Black Adder’ meanwhile produces slender spikes of purplish-blue flowers, with its foliage offering a delicious licorice fragrance. It too blooms well into the fall. And for pink lovers, there’s the lovely A. ‘Ambrosia.’ Featuring more finely textured fragrant foliage, its flowers offer a changing kaleidoscope of pink and orange hues. These selections top out at about 18” tall and are semi-deciduous.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is one of the great butterfly plants for a pollinators garden. This California native always seems to be in bloom and rarely without a butterfly perched on its flat top cyme of flowers. It is very adaptable but prefers rich, well-drained soil and lots of sun.

It develops a strong root system, allowing it to withstand less than favorable conditions. Colors range from the pastel pink of ‘Cameo’ to the burgundy-red of ‘Paprika’ and the fiery red of ‘Red Velvet.’

There is also the rich yellow flowers of ‘Little Moonshine’, the pure white beauty of ‘Sonoma Coast’ and the creamy pinks of ‘Salmon Beauty.’ Yarrows have a well-earned rep for sturdiness, beauty and for being one of the great plants for butterflies.

Lastly, we have the beauty of Beardstongue (Penstemon species). Two hybrid selections are of particular note. Penstemon x gloxinioides ‘Midnight’ and P. x gloxinioides ‘Thorn’ are surprisingly long-lived, very floriferous and attract both bees and hummers to their tubular flowers.

They each form a dense stand of slender bluish-green leaves and then come early summer, flower spikes arise above the foliage and are filled with flaring tubular flowers. ‘Midnight’ features rich purple blooms while ‘Thorn’ offers lovely, pink tipped white flowers. Thriving in part sun locations, these penstemons are the perfect combination of beauty and endurance.

Pollinator Resources & Websites

See Annie’s “Totally Useful Plant Lists” for our favorite plants for attracting bees and butterflies.  Our local friends at the Pollinator Posse offer two excellent online resources for information on adding pollinator plants to your garden including a wonderful pdf list of their favorite Native Pollinator Plants. The Pollinator Posses is a local resource run by frequent Annie’s speaker, Tora Rocha that works to promote the establishment of pollinator gardens in urban settings. Also, take a look at the Pollinator Partnership website for all kinds of ways to help out our local pollinators (www.pollinator.org). 

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