We love to watch charismatic species enjoy our gardens -- butterflies and hummingbirds and, sometimes, moths and bees. But these are just a few of the species that make an ecological garden thrive and build the health and resilience of the larger community. More pollinators from diverse groups means better pollination of plants and more food for predators like beetles, spiders, birds, and frogs. And while we need host plants for larvae of insects -- from milkweed to oaks to grasses -- I'm going to share the top native herbaceous perennial forbs (flowers) in my garden that attract a large diversity and number of pollinators. It's time to rethink pretty -- plants that are pretty to us and to pollinators.
A May bloomer here in eastern Nebraska, it's an important pollen and nectar source for our many tiny (and I mean tiny) native bee species emerging in mid to late spring. Sometimes you have to look close, vs. ten feet away like with a bumble bee, but you will see literal swarms of what look like small flies but are, in fact, many species of native bees. Of course, larger bees and flies visit, too. Host plant for black swallowtail butterflies.
Virginia Mountain Mint
Not your typical aggressive running mint, just a moderately spreading clumper that's easily gifted to friends -- and those with too much lawn. You'll see pollinators of every size and shape visiting for weeks and weeks, including the great black wasp, which is scary looking but totally docile. Plus, mountain mint smells great, which is why rabbits don't like it.
Over 150 species of insect use this flower, which self sows making this biennial or short-lived perennial a more long-term perennial (if you have a bit of open soil around it). I confess I love the fuzzy leaves, but it's the blooms and summer-long re-blooming that keep it busy with pollinator action -- the more nutritious pollen being the main draw, particularly for native bees.
A cool-looking plant for its blooms and foliage -- totally underused in designed garden landscapes. Flowers don't last more than a week or so, but in that time the entire neighborhood of pollinators visit. Ornamental seed heads last deep into winter, as well.
I'm also flummoxed as to why this plant isn't used more; the flowers go on for weeks, and the winter seed heads stay until you cut them down in spring. Tons and tons and tons of insects coming for nectar and pollen day and night (remember, white flowers will also attract moth species, most of which fly at night and far outnumber our butterfly species).
Tall Boneset (and Common Boneset)
Drought tolerant and a nice clumper, tall boneset has a long bloom time. You'll enjoy the large number of soldier beetles (not fireflies, which look similar) that come in droves. Common boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum, is a shorter and prefers consistent soil moisture while blooming earlier in the summer.
Smooth Aster (and Calico Aster)
On a sunny day you can wave your arm over this forb and literally create an inverse snowfall -- a hundred insects might rise up into the air. Bees, moths, butterflies, wasps, beetles, you name it come to gorge on some late season nectar for migration or overwintering. If you have dry shade look to the white-blooming, pink-centered calico aster, Symphyotrichum lateriflorum, which easily pulls in an equal number if pollinators.
There are many sunflower species to choose from for any site condition and desired form -- just get one! Not only are the blooms themselves used for pollen and nectar, but there's extra-floral nectar behind the bloom and along the stem (just look for crowds of insects in those places). Picture here is Helianthus maximiliani, not recommended for small gardens, however, since it spreads by runners.
Stiff Goldenrod (and Zigzag Goldenrod)
Any goldenrod will do, just like with sunflowers, but for me stiff goldenrod is behaved in tightly-planted and lush garden. The pollen of goldenrod is sticky and not airborne, making it welcome for those with allergies. If you have lots of shade look to zigzag goldenrod, Solidago flexicaulis, which is about half the height and will moderately spread to form a nice, friendly colony of bright blooms in dark corners. And zigzag smells divine from many feet away.
Looking for more native plants to try in a variety of conditions? Check out these online classes that feature flowers, shrubs, trees, as well as garden design strategies for winter, ecosystem function, and sustainability.