Planting for Your Favorite Pollinators

Photo by Maria Gulley

Photo by Maria Gulley

I sometimes get asked for recommendations for plants that attract butterflies, hummingbirds, or bees. Not only do we love the sight of these colorful, joyful creatures, they are also pollinators that are vital to our survival. No doubt you've heard about disappearing honeybees in the past few years, and why it's essential to American agriculture that they stick around. The same is true for all our other pollinators, even the more pesky wasps or less stunning moths (I should point out that there are some truly gorgeous moths out there - don't underestimate them!). Without pollinators we would lose 80% of the plants on earth, and that wouldn't work out so well for the rest of us living here.

The key to attracting pollinators is planting nectar-rich flowering plants. While recent trends toward double flowers or sterile plants may be interesting, they aren't the best for our pollinating friends, and neither are landscapes made solely of masses of yew bushes and arborvitae. I am especially a fan of native plants because they tend to offer more nectar than cultivated varieties, and they feed our native pollinators better than other plants (for more on the value of native plants, read this post). The lists below include a combination of Indiana native plants (marked with asterisks*) and non-native, non-invasive, pollinator-friendly trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals. Most varieties will work as long as they aren't referred to as a double flower (which often has a dense pom-pom shape with a uniform type of petal) or sterile. I could make some of these lists dozens of plants long, but for sake of space I'll limit each list to 8 trees or shrubs and 10 annuals or perennials.
 

Plants to Attract Butterflies

Butterfly gardens are extremely popular because of the wide range of plant options, the large quantity of butterflies that can gather, and the fact that butterflies can't sting you. Butterflies are attracted to red, yellow, orange, pink, and purple blossoms (pretty much everything but white). The need disk-shaped flowers or large clusters so they have somewhere to land as they feed (hummingbird moths can hover while they feed, but that's rare). To sustain butterfly traffic in the garden you also need to plant species their caterpillars feed on. Some of those plants are also included in the lists, but if you want to know what to plant to cater to caterpillars of different butterfly and moth species, refer to this website from the National Wildlife Federation (this link is also included in the references at the end of the post).

Trees

River Birch (Betula nigra)*
Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)*
Redbud (Cercis canadensis)*
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)*
Sweet Bay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
Crabapple (Malus selections)
Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)*

Shrubs and Vines

Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)*
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)*
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)*
Lilac (Syringa selections)

Perennials

Yarrow (Achillea selections)
Milkweed (Asclepias species)*
Aster (Aster selections)*
Coreopsis (Coreopsis species)*
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)*
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum)*
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Blazingstar (Liatris spicata)*
Bee Balm (Monarda varieties)*
Salvia (Salvia nemorosa)

Annuals and Tender Perennials

Vinca (Catharanthus roseus)
Cosmos (Cosmos selections)
Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)*
Lantana (Lantana selections)
Pentas (Pentas selections)
Petunia (Petunia selections)
Marigold (Tagetes selections)
Verbena (Verbena selections)
Zinnia (Zinnia selections)

Flowering Dogwood Photo by Maria Gulley

Flowering Dogwood
Photo by Maria Gulley

Bottlebrush Buckeye Photo by Maria Gulley

Bottlebrush Buckeye
Photo by Maria Gulley

Lantana Photo by Maria Gulley

Lantana
Photo by Maria Gulley


Plants to Attract Hummingbirds

If you want to attract hummingbirds, feeders are always an option, but there are many plants that will attract them just as well or even better. In fact I remember growing up when the hummingbirds all but ignored the feeder and couldn't get enough of our hollyhocks. They feed in flowers with long tubes that hold plenty of nectar, and they love the color red. Unlike butterflies, they can feed while hovering, so they don't need a flower that provides a perch.

Trees

Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra)*
Horsechesnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)
Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)*

Shrubs and Vines

Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)*
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)*
Weigela (Weigela selections)

Perennials

Hollyhock (Alcea selections)
Columbine (Aquilegia selections)*
Hosta (Hosta selections)
Red Hot Poker Plant (Kniphofia uvaria)
Lily (Lilium selections)
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)*
Bee Balm (Monarda selections)*
Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis)*
Salvia (Salvia nemorosa)

Annuals and Tender Perennials

Snapdragon (Antirrhinum selections)
Fuchsia (Fuchsia selections)
Hibiscus (Hibiscus selections)
Mandevilla (Mandevilla selections)
Petunia (Petunia selections)
Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata)
Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea)
Verbena (Verbena selections)
Zinnia (Zinnia selections)
 

Columbine Photo by Maria Gulley

Columbine
Photo by Maria Gulley

Hosta Photo by Maria Gulley

Hosta
Photo by Maria Gulley

Snapdragon Photo by Maria Gulley

Snapdragon
Photo by Maria Gulley

Plants to Attract Bees

Bees as a group aren't picky about flowers. Some of our native species only visit a few plants, but honeybees and most of the other bees you notice are generalists. They are more attracted to blue, purple, yellow, and white flowers, but they aren't going to turn their proboscis up at something orange. They can't reach into some of the narrow tubular flowers hummingbirds love, but beyond that they have few limitations.

Trees

Maple (Acer selections)*
Horsechesnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)
Serviceberry (Amelachier canadensis)*
Redbud (Cercis canadensis)*
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)*
Crabapple (Malus selections)
Oak (Quercus selections)*
Willow (Salix selections)*

Shrubs and Vines

Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa or arbutifolia)*
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)*
Flowering Quince (Chaenomeles speciosa)
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster selections)
Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii)
Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)*
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)*
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)*
Lilac (Syringa selections)

Perennials

Aster (Aster selections)*
Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii)*
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)*
Hosta (Hosta selections)
Blazingstar (Liatris spicata)*
Bee Balm (Monarda selections)*
Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis)
Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)
Salvia (Salvia nemorosa)
Stonecrop (Sedum selections)*

Annuals and Tender Perennials

Ageratum (Ageratum houstonianum)
Snapdragon (Antirrhinum selections)
Cosmos (Cosmos selections)
California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)*
Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens)
Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima)
Pentas (Pentas selections)
Marigold (Tagetes selections)
Zinnia (Zinnia selections)

Serviceberry Photo by Maria Gulley

Serviceberry
Photo by Maria Gulley

Aster Photo by Maria Gulley

Aster
Photo by Maria Gulley

Salvia Photo by Maria Gulley

Salvia
Photo by Maria Gulley

These lists only scratch the surface of the possibilities for pollinator-friendly gardening. Below I've listed some other more comprehensive lists and resources about planting for pollinators. In addition to choosing plants from these list, you can further encourage pollinators to visit your landscape by making sure something is blooming at all times of the season and by being careful about the timing and selection of pesticides. If you're especially concerned about bees, check out our post on 6 easy ways to help bees.

What are your favorite plants for attracting, butterflies, hummingbirds, or bees? Whether it's a plant I included on these lists or something I missed, feel free to share in the comments.

Additional Resources
Pollinator Friendly Planting Guides (Pollinator Partnership)
Gardening for Pollinators (USDA Forest Service)
Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden Using Native Plants (USDA Forest Service)
How to Attract Butterflies to Your Garden (National Wildlife Federation)
Attracting Hummingbirds to Your Yard (Purdue University)
Plant a Bee Garden (The Honeybee Conservancy)


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