Most people have a pretty good idea of what pollen is. Some know it as the fuzzy, fluffy stuff that flies through the air and makes them sneeze from March to November, while others may get daubed on the nose with it when they stop to smell their favorite bloom. The truth is that pollen is the vital stuff that plants exude to fertilize one another, and in order to get to where it needs to go, it generally needs a pollinator. Keep reading to find out which plants will attract pollinators in your region, and which to add to your garden this spring.
What is a Pollinator?
: one that pollinates: as
a : an agent (such as an insect) that pollinates flowers
The most common pollinator that most folks will be familiar with is the ever-productive bee. These little miracles buzz around from flower to flower, from tree to tree, carrying pollen from stamens to pistils everywhere. Have you ever taken a close look at a bumblebee’s legs? Those aren’t yellow haunches peeking out from beneath its fuzzy butt: those are pockets of pollen that dangle from its legs like panniers on a bicycle, and the average worker bee can carry 20 mg of pollen at a time. Considering that the average bee weighs only 80 mg, that’s pretty impressive. (Can you imagine lifting a quarter of your own body weight and flying around with it? I’m lucky if I can do a chin-up without fainting.) As bees flit between flowers to seek out nectar, pollen falls from their legs to the open pistils and fertilizes them.
Why is this important?
Think about every tomato you’ve ever eaten, every apple you’ve ever crunched into, every onion you’ve chopped, and every whisper of vanilla that has ever passed your lips. None of those items would have existed had their parent plant not been pollinated by some sort of little flying creature—and our pollinators are disappearing at an alarming rate. Pesticides may be largely to blame, but whatever the cause is, the disappearance of pollinating insects threatens food security in a massive way. Over 3/4 of food plants require pollination, so quite frankly, if plants don’t get pollinated, they don’t produce food, and no food means nothing to eat. It really is that simple.
We can all help to nurture the pollinator population in our areas by planting flowers that attract the insects and birds that are most vital for the plants growing there.
Planting to Attract Pollinators
This is a bit tricky, as every region has its own unique flora and fauna: you’re not going to find the same insects and flowers in New Mexico as you will in New Brunswick, so if you’re interested in going this route, you’ll have to do a bit of research. There are countless websites devoted to regional animal, plant, and insect life, so you can do a search for species native to your region to see what comes up. Alternatively, you can go the analog route and pick up some books on regional wildlife at your local library or bookstore.
For the sake of giving an interesting contrast, let’s look at the native flowers and flying beasties in the two very different regions mentioned above.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
Hardiness Zone: 6b– 7b
Some native wildflowers:
Whorled mountain mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum), Rocky Mountain beeplant (Cleome serrulata), dwarf desert peony (Acourtia nana), white mistflower (Ageratina havanensis), tubular bluestar (Amsonia longiflora), chokecherry (Prunus virginiana ), golden prickle poppy (Argemone aenea), fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium), blue-headed gilia (Gilia capitata), willow-leaved catalpa (Chilopsis linearis), western dog violet (Viola adunca), globe mallows (Sphaeralcea laxa and S. ambigua), firewheel/blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella)
Insects and other pollinators attracted by these: a wide variety of honey bees, beetles, hummingbirds, flies, bats, moths, butterflies, native bees, and predatory wasps feast on these blooms, and birds such as warblers and canyon wrens hunt for the insects that make their homes among the leaves. The endangered sage sparrow winters in New Mexico, and it likes to nest (and feed) in chokecherry bushes.
Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada
Hardiness Zone: 4b
Some native wildflowers: Sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia), common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), meadow rose (Rosa blanda), bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), wild lupine (Lupinis perennis), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), blue vervain (Verbena hastata), smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), Canada milk vetch (Astragalus canadensis), evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)
Insects and other pollinators attracted by these: The endangered Karner Blue butterfly feeds exclusively on wild lupine, while milkweed is a mandatory food source for the caterpillars of Monarch butterflies. Canada milk vetch is the most important host for the larvae of western tailed blue butterflies; hummingbirds feed from its flowers; honeybees and bumblebees love its pollen, and its seeds feed wild birds such as vireos, orioles, sparrows, chickadees, and tanagers late into the autumn. Bergamot attracts all manner of bees and butterflies as well.
Why Native Species are Vital
Native ecosystems existed long before we galloped onto the scene, and they evolved in a way that struck a great balance. Over the last couple of centuries, people have introduced new species all over the place, torn out native plants that were considered “weeds”, and doused the land with pesticides, fungicides, and other chemicals that have decimated insect populations (which in turn feed birds, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals, which in turn feed foxes, hawks, weasels, etc.—you get the idea). By re-introducing native flora into your area, you can help to restore the balance that’s been thrown off by humanity’s short-sightedness.
There are certain mycorrhizae and nutrients that a region’s soil requires that can only be replenished by native species, and many insects that can/will only feed from very specific plants.
Benefits of Non-Native Species
Although it’s always a good idea to plant native species to re-establish an ecosystem, some non-natives can also be of benefit. Remember that there’s a difference between non-native species (NNS), and non-native invasive species: the latter, usually comprised of aggressive-growing perennials, can choke out native plants that would otherwise nurture soil and attract beneficial insects, but some NNS can be of some benefit, when used properly.
Some NNS have a much longer flowering period than native ones, which can be a good source of pollen/nectar for insects. In such instances, aim for annuals rather than perennials, so your space can benefit from the flowers for one season, and you don’t have to worry that they’ll establish themselves permanently.
In my little corner of rural Quebec, I have native plants such as milkweed, columbines, butterfly weed, cow vetch, ox eye daisies, bergamot, lupine, meadow rose, asters, and marsh marigolds (which feed countless species), and I’ve also planted bergamot and fragrant flowering herbs near my vegetable patch to draw pollinators over to them. Your region may have similar plants, or they may be completely different, but ultimately the goal is the same.
It is of vital importance that we nurture our insect populations by providing them with the habitat they need to thrive, because without them, we could face entire ecosystem collapse. We depend on those little creatures more than most people realize, and the survival of life on this planet may in fact depend on us scattering a few indigenous wildflowers around.