Thursday, March 12, 2009

Planting for Pollinators

Butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and even bats and flies are all pollinators that feed off plants in your yard. So when you’re adding new flowers to your landscape, choose those that provide nectar and pollen for winged workers.

“Almost all native plants that rely on pollination rely on these limited numbers of insects,” said Paul Thomas, a horticulture professor at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “Plants that attract pollinators provide food for the insects. But they’re not just helping the plants in your gardens. They are helping all native plants.”

Pollinators are vital to agriculture. They pollinate most fruit, vegetable and seed crops. Healthy pollinator populations can improve plant and fruit size and quality. By adding plants to your landscape that provide food and shelter for pollinators through their active seasons, you can help the pollinators and help maintain the biodiversity of native species.

Attracting pollinators

Whether you hope to attract butterflies and hummingbirds to your home or provide a food source for honeybees, there are a few things to consider. Pollinators need consistent nectar sources, open roaming areas, tree-canopy cover nearby and a source of moisture and soil salts.
Select a sunny spot for a pollinator garden. “It is tough to plant a pollinator garden in the shade,” Thomas said. “To provide nectar and pollen, full-sun plants are the way to go.”

Salvia, lantana and trumpet vine will take the heat. Echinacea can tolerate drought conditions as well.

To extend the flower season, “plant the perennials you want, fill in with annuals and provide some full-summer blooming shrubs,” he said. “The more varied your garden the better.”

Thomas recommends hardy lantana, blue sage salvia, purple coneflower, verbena canadensis and thrift. A good native butterfly plant is Joe Pye weed, which provides fall blooms.

Pay attention to each plants' height, vigor and space accordingly. Miss Huff lantana and the butterfly bush Black Knight may look small the day you plant them. But each can grow into a 4-foot-wide bush.

Provide a variety of plant colors and shapes to attract multiple pollinators. Hummingbirds are attracted to red and blue flowers while bees tend to prefer white and yellow blooms. Butterflies are happy with pinks and purples.

Bees need rounded flowers where they can more easily reach the nectar and pollen. Butterflies can sip from tubular or cone shaped flowers.


Hummingbirds look for flags or certain plants that signal an appropriate feeding and breeding site.

“If a male hummingbird sees a native horse chestnut, he knows the area is a suitable habitat,” Thomas said.

Males are also attracted to bright red flowers like those on native honeysuckle. Later in the summer, young hummingbirds prefer flowers such as blue sage. Other recommended plants for hummingbirds are red flowering chestnut, abelias, summer phlox, chaste tree, columbine, cardinal flower, bee balm, red hot poker, hibiscus and most salvias.


“For a successful butterfly garden, it’s vital to select nectar-producing plants with accessible flowers,” Thomas said.

He suggests lantana and purple coneflower because they produce nectar and attract butterflies continuously, even during the driest droughts. Choose plants that will bloom in sequence, providing nectar from March 1 to the first killing frost.

Homestead purple verbena will bloom in early spring through early summer and flower again in late fall. This provides nectar for early- and late-season butterflies such as Question Mark, Red Admiral and Zebra and Tiger Swallowtails.

Blue anise sage and purple coneflower will bloom in cycles if you pick off the spent flowers. Verbena bonariensis will stop flowering early, but you can cut it halfway back in early August to stimulate new flowers for fall.

Having a food source for caterpillars is vital, too. To accommodate this early butterfly stage, include an ornamental fennel, the favorite food of Eastern Black Swallowtails. Dill, fennel, carrot and parsley do well, too.

By April Sorrow
University of Georgia

April Sorrow is a news editor for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

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