Attracting Pollinators



One of the best things you can do to increase the number of butterflies and other pollinators in your yard is to plant lots of flowers that are specifically attractive to them. Many of the more popular flowers such as hybrid roses are not going to attract butterflies since they have no nectar. Some flowers such as most hibiscus (but not Turk's Cap) provide only a pollen reward to insects and thus attract only some types of bumblebees. However planting another mallow, the Rose of Sharon, is a wonderful way to attract hummingbirds. So you have to be very selective in choosing flowers that are known to attract butterflies, and also observe how well they actually perform in your location. It can be confusing since butterflies and hummingbirds will sometimes be temporarily attracted to flowers that provide no nectar reward. Sometimes native plants are best but non-invasive exotics such as red zinnias and pentas can be extremely useful in a pollinator-friendly garden. 

Since I am a lazy gardener and we have a lot of land available, my wife and I have tried planting masses of flowers and grasses all together in a wildflower pollinator meadow. You select a mixture of seeds and plant these with a seed drill or by broadcasting in an area in which the previous grasses and weeds have been killed. Of course there are many seeds in the "seed bank" and underground roots of weeds that remain viable and will come up along with your flowers. However this is not all bad since flowers of some of these plants such as milkweeds, moth and common mulleins, and thistles are extremely attractive to insects. The ones that are not so desirable such as burdock and pokeweed can be mostly removed by hand cutting. We have now tried this wildflower meadow approach three different times with different results. We have learned not to plant switchgrass which can dominate the plot or too many tall flowers such as oxeye sunflower. These plantings are not permanent but change yearly with invasion of native plants such as goldenrod and blackberry. But they can be spectacular for the first several years and richly repay the effort involved. 

Here are some views from a five acre plot we planted one year ago with 16 species of flowers and 3 species of grasses. The adjacent fields are mostly fescue grass with some milkweeds. In this very wet year we have been pleased by good growth of black eyed Susans, purple coneflower, Coreopsis, oxeye sunflower, wild bergamot, lemon mint, blanket flower, and wild senna. These are attracting more than a dozen species of butterflies, numerous bees, and flocks of goldfinches and indigo buntings. 

Four species of swallowtail butterflies (tiger, black, spicebush, pipevine), three species of sulphurs (orange, clouded, cloudless), great fritillaries, pearl crescents, silver spotted skippers, red admirals, American ladies, wood nymphs and monarchs have been enjoying nectar from the flowers in late July. Goldfinches and indigo buntings are mainly feeding on seeds but probbaly pick up some insects also. 

So consider planting your own simulated wildflower meadow of whatever size under natural conditions and do not worry about everything being perfectly weeded or arranged. Just let nature take care of that and enjoy the results in the increased numbers of butterflies and birds visiting. 

Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL, and Galax, VA