It seems that life has caught up with us as we face a new reality. The populations of our bees and Monarch butterflies are in serious decline. While global warming is a part of the problem, the main issue is the loss of natural environments; that results in a loss of food and breeding grounds for our insect friends. The decline in the populations of these important insects is an environmental wake-up call, as they are a vital link in our food chain.
Bees, butterflies, other insects, and hummingbirds are important pollinators. We rely on all of them. Attracting these pollinators to your life and garden is a great way to make a difference. To attract them we need to plant pollenizers —plants that are a preferred source of nectar. The nectar is a food and attracts pollinators to your garden. While they visit, pollen is collected and exchanged: basically, sex in your garden. To plan a pollinators’ paradise, plant nectar-rich plants that bloom in stages, so there is always something for them to eat. This also creates a healthier, more biodiverse environment. If you are a vegetable gardener, remember that pollinators are essential for a successful harvest. Invite them to your veggie garden with the interplanting of flowers.
There are varieties of flowers that produce more nectar and are also designed to allow the pollinator easier access — a more inviting option. Double flowers for example, are not usually worth the effort. Preferred nectar sources include the following:
Alliums, Asters, Buddleia (aptly known as Butterfly Bush), Catmint, Chrysanthemums, Golden Rod, Lavender and Joy Pye Weed (perennial options).
Borage, Verbena Bonariensis and Zinnias (prolific flowering annuals).
As well, let herbs such as parsley, cilantro, arugula and oregano go to flower and then to seed. The flowers are a great late season food source and the plants will often self-seed. Or you can harvest the seed for cooking. Dill, fennel and parsley attract butterflies and serve as larval plants for the caterpillars.
The Monarch Butterfly deserves our special attention. Their numbers are so low that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended a status review under the Endangered Species Act — one of America’s most powerful environmental law. This “King” of the butterflies has very particular food demands importantly related to their reproduction. There are three varieties of Milkweed available in this area, all of which are beautiful perennial plants. The Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the only plant in which you might find the chrysalis of the Monarch because this plant is also the only food source for the caterpillar. The Common Milkweed has greatly declined in numbers. Growing Common Milkweed in your garden, depending on your space, requires cutting back runners and seed pods. It is possible to have one plant, but if you have the room, allowing a colony of these beautiful plants to establish is very rewarding. This plant has been taken off the noxious weed list to protect the Monarch Butterfly, so plant it freely.
Two other varieties of Milkweed make great garden plants and their flowers are important as an adult butterfly food source. They are also more contained and shrub-like plants. Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) are great additions to any sunny garden. The Swamp variety offers beautiful clusters of pink flowers and attractive pinate (elongated/pointed end) leaves. It will be happiest in a wet or low spot in your garden. The Butterfly weed is a striking plant. Its mounding, shrub habit (2’h x 2’w) is very versatile and the abundant and brilliant orange flowers bloom all summer. Its shorter habit makes it a stunning addition to the front of any garden bed.
Most flowers offer food for our winged friends. Planting more pollinators and finding ways to incorporate them into your garden or outdoor space helps nature begin to recover. Like us, these vital insects, and the stunning Hummingbird, deserve a good local food source. Plan on planting yours.
Rick Weingarden and Allan Watts own Anything Grows SEED Co. (www.anythinggrows.com). They can be found at the Western Fair Farmers’ & Artisans’ Market on Saturdays, and at various gardening events around the region.