I have often wondered where plant pollinators, such as bumblebees and hummingbirds, sleep during the night. Recently, while gathering fresh calendula flowers the evening before a tropical storm was to hit, I began seeing individual bumblebees nestled inside dozens of calendula blossoms, as if someone had told them it was time to go to sleep. There they were, no longer buzzing among flowers but absolutely still and in their beds, asleep. In this magical and timeless moment, I felt like a kid who was too excited and enchanted to even think about going inside to eat dinner.
Growing medicinal herbs has been my passion for almost 30 years. As this passion has developed, so has my curiosity about and fascination for plant pollinators. I can often be found standing still in the garden, watching the hummingbirds, or down on my hands and knees, completely mesmerized by how the bumblebees, honey bees and butterflies feed on flowers.
My first herb teacher, Juliette de Bairacli Levy, told me to watch which medicinal herbs the honey bees visited frequently; those, she said, contained extra strong medicine. She was referring to some of the most common European herbs, such as lemon balm, lavender, rosemary and sage. Because of her words, and my interest in collecting and saving herb seeds, I began to intersperse my herb gardens with flowers and flowering trees and shrubs that attract pollinators, some which also have medicinal qualities. The medicinal herbs and flowers listed below grow in Avena Botanicals’ zone 5 gardens in West Rockport, Maine. I chose some of the most common herbs and flowers people grow in northern New England to include in this article. It is in no way a complete list. (I would love to receive plant and pollinator lists from other pollinator enthusiasts.)
Flowers exist first and foremost to attract pollinators. Jo Brewer, one of the first proponents of butterfly gardening in the United States, wrote, “A garden is as static as a painting until butterflies bring it to life.” Most gardeners need make only a few changes here and there to attract more pollinators. Both cultivated and wild herbs and flowers growing in and around the garden provide food for caterpillars and nectar for adult butterflies, insects, bees and birds. Dandelion, milkweed and nettle are considered weeds, yet to the herbalist, they are highly beneficial to humans, pollinators and the soil. The more diverse the garden and surrounding fields and woods, the more diverse the species of pollinators. Even small, urban gardens and container gardens on decks can provide food for local pollinators.
Flowers for Hummingbirds
Bee balm (Monarda didyma, M. fistulosa)
Buckeye, red (Aesculus pavia)
Butterfly bush (Buddleia)
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Chestnut, horse (Aesculus hippocastanum)
Columbine, wild (Aquilegia canadensis)
Coral bells (Heuchera sanguinea)
Honeysuckle (Lonicera) (but not invasive, nonnative species)
Hummingbird sage (Salvia coccinea)
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)
Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinale)
Marshmallow (Althea officinalis)
Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia)
Morning-glory, red (Ipomoea coccinea)
Nasturium (Tropaeolum majus)
Nicotiana, jasmine scented (Nicotiana alata)
Solomon’s seal, true (Polyganatum)
Willow (catkins) (Salix) (but not the potentially invasive large gray willow, S. cinerea)
Wolfberry (Lycium barbarum)
Flowers for Butterflies
Apple (Malus) — food plant for spring azure, viceroy
Anise-hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) — red admiral, painted lady
Artemisia (mugwort, southernwood, sweet Annie, wormwood) — food plant for American painted lady, nectar source for tiger swallowtail, great spangled fritillary, monarch
Aster (Aster) — nectar source for checkered white, common sulphur, orange sulphur, question mark, American painted lady, painted lady, red admiral, buckeye, common checkered skipper, fiery skipper
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) — nectar source for great spangled fritillary
Butterfly bush (Buddleia) — nectar source for pipevine swallowtail, anise swallowtail, tiger swallowtail, comma, American painted lady, painted lady, monarch
Echinacea (Echinacea) — nectar source for great spangled fritillary
Figwort (Scrophularia) — food for common buckeye larvae
Goldenrod (Solidago) — nectar source for common sulphur, orange sulphur, gray hairstreak, American painted lady, red admiral, viceroy
Hollyhock (Alcea) — food plant for painted lady, common checkered skipper, gray hairstreak
Ironweed (Vernonia) — food plant for American painted lady, nectar source for tiger swallowtail, great spangled fritillary, monarch, fiery skipper
Lilac (Syringa) — giant swallowtail, eastern tiger swallowtail, Milbert’s tortoiseshell, monarch, spring azure
Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) — anise swallowtail, tiger swallowtail, Milbert’s tortoiseshell, monarch, painted lady, red admiral, silver-spotted skipper, viceroy
Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) — clouded sulphur, painted lady, monarch
Milkweed (Asclepias) — food plant for monarch, nectar source for pipevine swallowtail, eastern black swallowtail, giant swallowtail, tiger swallowtail, western tiger swallowtail, spicebush swallowtail, checkered white, cabbage white, common sulphur, orange sulphur, gray hairstreak, spring azure, great spangled fritillary, question mark, American painted lady, painted lady, red admiral, monarch, fiery skipper, viceroy
Mint (Mentha) — nectar source for western black swallowtail, anise swallowtail, western tiger swallowtail, cabbage white, common buckeye, gray hairstreak, American painted lady, painted lady, red admiral, monarch, pearl crescent
Nettle (Urtica dioicia) — larvae of Milbert’s tortoiseshell, question mark, red admiral
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) — food plant for eastern black swallowtail, anise swallowtail
Passion flower (Passiflora) — food plant and nectar source for gulf fritillary, painted lady
Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) — food plant for eastern black swallowtail, gray hairstreak
Red clover (Trifolium pratense) — nectar source for cabbage white, great spangled fritillary, American painted lady, painted lady, red admiral, silver-spotted skipper, common checkered skipper
Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) — nectar source for cabbage white, American painted lady, silver-spotted skipper
Verbena (Verbena) — nectar source for great spangled fritillary, fiery skipper
Violet (Viola) — food plant for great spangled fritillary, nectar source for spring azure
Willow (Salix — but not the potentially invasive large gray willow, S. cuprea) — food plant for tiger swallowtail, western tiger swallowtail
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) — silver-spotted skipper
The ornamental flowers cosmos and zinnia, as well as dozens of others, are nectar sources for many butterflies, including the monarch.
Flowers for Honey Bees
Angelica (Angelica archangelica)
Anise-hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
Bee balm (Monarda didyma, M. fistulosa)
Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)
Borage (Borago officinalis)
Butterfly weed (Asclepia tuberosa)
Catmint (Nepeta mussinii)
Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
Lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina)
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca)
Poppy (Papaver somnifera)
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Thyme, creeping (Thymus serphyllum)
Wood betony (Betonica officinalis)
In The Forgotten Pollinators, Stephen L. Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan ask whether display gardens have any conservation value, in light of the vast, global disruptions by humans of the interactions between plants and pollinators. The response is that alone, a small garden for pollinators cannot conserve threatened or endangered pollinators and plants, but it can remind people of “the primacy of the precious keystone relationships between them.” As Stanwyn Shetler of the Smithsonian Institution once warned: “One butterfly or one wildflower does not an ecosystem make. Nature’s rich complement of butterflies and flowers and other organisms and their myriad, evolved relationships can only survive if the diversity of the natural habitat is preserved. And yet the butterfly garden is a wonderful window on the local environment. Like a light trap or a bird feeder, a butterfly garden lets you know what is in the territory or which way the ecological currents are blowing. It is a telling index of the character and well-being of the neighboring patches of nature.”
Let us hope that butterfly and hummingbird gardens will grow even more popular, and that our neighborhoods and communities will grow to share a common love and concern for the future by planting pollinator gardens on both small and large parcels of land. Please send names of books, articles and journals with specific information on plant pollinators, or your personal experience with plants and pollinators to me: Deb Soule, 219 Mill St., Rockport, ME 04856; [email protected] (please say “Info for Deb Soule” in the subject line).
Buchmann, Stephen L., and Gary Paul Nabhan, The Forgotten Pollinators, Island Press, 1997.
Lewis, Alcinda, ed., Butterfly Gardens, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1996.
Newfield, Nancy L., and Barbara Nielsen, Hummingbird Gardens: Attracting Nature’s Jewels to Your Backyard, Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Sargent, Robert, Ruby-throaded Hummingbird, Stackpole Books, 1999.
Schneck, Marcus, Creating a Butterfly Garden, Creating a Hummingbird Garden, Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Stokes, Donald and Lillian, Beginner’s Guide To Butterflies, Little, Brown, 2001.
Thurston, Harry, The World of the Hummingbird, Treasure Chest Books, 1999.
Williamson, Sheri L., A Field Guide to the Hummingbirds of North America, Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
About the author: Deb is the founder of Avena Botanicals and the Avena Institute in West Rockport, Maine, and author of A Woman’s Book of Herbs. You can visit her Web site at www.avenaherbs.com. This article is for information only; please consult a health care practitioner if you have a serious medical problem.