Three All-Star Pollinator Plants

There are many plants that attract, feed and nurture pollinating insects and birds. And, every gardener will have favorites. In my garden, there are three plants that always seem to be covered with bees and butterflies. Here’s the rundown:

Bees swarm anise hyssop from the minute it blooms each summer.

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is the biggest bee magnet in my yard. Sometimes called giant anise hyssop or hummingbird mint, I can attest to both its size and its lovely scent. I have three of these planted below the window in my garage that faces the back garden. (Check out the photo of the giant trio at the end of this post.) The plants are currently above the garage window sill and covered the blooms. One caveat: They do seed rather freely — like crazy freely! Fortunately, the seedlings are very easy to identify by their appearance and scent and are quick to pull.

orange monarch butterfly on purple flower
Monarch on liatris in Twin Cities garden

Blazing star (LIatris spp.) is a plant both butterflies and bees love. In my Northfield garden, I had ‘Kobold’ liatris in the front garden. This plant has a lovely bottle-brush flower and was a favorite with many butterflies as well as bees. Maintenance could not have been easier. Once it was established, I cut back the old flowers in spring. That’s it. Nothing more. Rarely watered and never fertilized it. For my new back garden, I planted meadow blazing star (L. ligulistylis) on recommendation from pollinator expert Rhonda Fleming Hayes. It’s in its first year in the garden, so it has not gotten as tall as advertised yet. I’m hoping for good things from this one!

monarch on orange flower
Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) is a monarch magnet

Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) is that plant you see all over Instragram with monarch butterflies on it. (Check out my feed to see one.) After milkweed, which is the only plant monarch’s lay eggs on, Mexican sunflower is probably the most popular plant with monarchs that I have ever planted. Once the blooms start doing their bright orange thing, the monarchs are there. Bees also love it. The plant itself is large—4 to 5 feet tall—and the foliage is big and not exactly pretty, but the flowers, the flowers, the flowers. For them and the monarchs, I plant this one.

What are your favorite pollinator plants?

Three giant hyssop plants easily fill the space below my garage window.

Gardening for Pollinators in a Big Way

This summer I’ll be planting a small pollinator garden on our boulevard.  It’s the start of what I hope will be a bigger garden along my hellstrip—the 55-by-7 foot stretch of our property between the sidewalk and the street.  Start small, and grow it from there is a good motto in the garden. Still, seeing a big, private garden with a focus on pollinators is inspiring.

wildflowers in a field
From the driveway, the yard was a sea of wildflowers.

During the recent Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin, TX, we visited the garden of Ruthie Burrus. The property includes a magical stone garden house and a killer view of downtown Austin, but it was the long, hilly driveway flanked by native plants that blew me away. The field was buzzing with bees, moths and butterflies, and I’m sure, dozens of pollinators I could not identify. The sheer expanse of the garden was impressive.

closeup of Mexican hat flower
Mexican hat (Ratibida columnaris)

Native plants filled the space, including blanket flower, beebalm, Mexican hat, winecup and Texas lantana. I couldn’t identify all the butterflies and bees feeding along the hill but I recognized monarchs and painted ladies.

purple wine cup flower
Winecup (Callirhoë involucrata)

At the top of the hill, near the house, Ruthie uses more pollinator-friendly plants, including ‘Black and Blue’ salvia around this blue agave, and a hedge of a native salvia along one edge of the property. The back yard is much smaller than the front and includes a beautiful pool and patio area along with that stunning view.

agave cactus surrounded by salvia
‘Black and Blue’ salvia surround a blue agave
hedge with purple flowers
I have to admit I experienced more than a little zone envy when I saw this hedge of salvia.

I left the garden feeling even more inspired to plant my own pollinator field.

stone garden house
This adorable garden house is going to be covered with roses, Ruthie told us.
view of downtown austin texas
The view from Ruthie’s back patio is of the skyline of downtown Austin

Thanks to the Texas Highway Department’s helpful website for assisting me with identifying some of the plants in Ruthie’s garden.

Bee on Baptisia

baptisia and bee
The bees love the nectar from baptisia.

With the sun out (finally) and the temperatures heating up, many plants have started to bloom and the bees and butterflies are returning to the garden. There were swarms of these large bumblebees working over the Baptisia ‘Twilight Blues’ that I have planted in the front garden. The size of this plant makes it almost like a shrub and the flowers, while fairly short-lived, are gorgeous. The bees seem to like them, too, and I know they get pollinated because every fall the black seed pods can be found dangling from the plants.

Allium is a Bee Magnet

allium with bee
This allium is one of many that attract bees and other pollinators.

I like to plant flowers that attract wildlife to the yard: bees, birds, butterflies. Seeing butterflies dance on top of a coneflower or watching a bird as it works diligently to remove a seed from a dried sunflower increases my appreciation for nature and — not to sound too sappy — life itself. So, discovering a plant that attracts wildlife far beyond expectations is a great pleasure. That’s been my reaction to this ornamental onion (Allium spaerocephalon) that I planted last fall. I’ve got clumps of it in three areas of the front yard, and not only is it a particularly handsome plant, but it’s a positive bee magnet.

This bulb comes up in early to midsumer, long after tulips and daffodils are done. The tight flowerheads are shaped like an elongated sphere. They start out a bright green, but as the flowers open and spread, the color goes purple. Once it’s fully open, watch out — here come the bees! Yesterday, I found no fewer than a dozen bees buzzing around, gathering nectar from one of the clumps. Chives, another member of the allium family, is often suggested for attracting pollinators, but this allium seems to pull in many more bees than the chives I have. (Besides, chives are pretty invasive.) Allium spaerocephalon is recommended for rock gardens, borders, woodlands and the area between trees and shrubs. It makes a pretty cut flower, too, but why deprive the bees?

Hooray for Autumn Joy

As I’ve been thinking about the new flower bed I’ll be installing this fall and next spring, a few plants rate as “must-haves.” One of them is Autumn Joy sedum, which is currently in bloom in my garden and in many others from Canada to the south. What a great plant!

Autumn Joy sedume
Reliable, pretty, and a pollinator plant — it’s hard not to like Autumn Joy sedum.

Its scientific names is Sedum ‘Herbstfreude’ so you can see why they came up with the common name Autumn Joy. It has succulent-like leaves and when it comes up in the spring it looks like a tiny cactus or an odd cabbage; the foliage makes the plant interesting even when it is not blooming. It grows about 2 feet tall and in mid-summer develops pale green flowers, about 3 inches across. Beginning in September, these change color, going from green to pink to a rich red then almost rust, fading to brown after a hard freeze. You don’t want to cut it back in the fall, because the seedheads provide food for birds and make perfect landing pads for snowflakes. In winter, the seedheads sometimes look like they are wearing stocking caps of snow.

butterflies on pink flower
Painted Lady butterflies swarmed Autumn Joy in 2017.

Autumn Joy is drought and salt tolerant and gets by in fair soil. It does need to be divided every few years to maintain an upright look. Mine has been in this location about four years and definitely needs to be divided. The plant is flopping over.

Plant breeders have developed several other sedum cultivars to take advantage of Autumn Joy’s popularity. ‘Autumn Fire’ is similar to Autumn Joy in color, but forms a tighter clump. ‘Black Jack’ is a sedum with purplish foliage. ‘John Creech’ grows only 2 inches tall and is used as a groundcover. There are many others as well. Sedum is sometimes called stonecrop because it grows so well around rocks. Whether you have a rock garden, or just a sunny one, sedum is a good choice.