- Author: Nadia Zane
Some plants appeal to a narrow range of pollinators while others are able to cast a broader net, aided by certain features:
- Tiny flowers clustered together reduces energy output by the pollinator when moving from one bloom to the next. Abundant, small blooms also increases the number of insects able to feed at once
- Extended anthers and stigma (a flower's reproductive parts) makes pollen access easier
- Flat-topped flower heads appeal to non-hovering pollinators, which need a “landing pad” while feeding (e.g. butterflies, many bee species)
In small gardens, selecting plant species that appeal to many will help support biodiversity, which is critical to the overall health of our ecosystem. Try some (or several!) of the following plants, all of which are hardy in the Central Valley:
Asteraceae family (Aster)
This is one of the largest plant families with approximately 23,000 species. Flowers in the aster family usually appear to have a single bloom on each stem; in actuality, each flower is a composite of tightly-packed individual tubular flowers. Some asters, such as dandelion and thistle, contain only tubular flowers. Others, such as daisies, also have ray flowers on the outside.
Planting a variety of asters can extend your bloom season from spring through fall, giving pollinators plenty of forage:
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is native to California and a great plant for low-water gardens. It's evergreen foliage is frond-like and fragrant; graceful clusters of white flowers welcome myriad bees and butterflies to sip nectar from spring through summer. Good for full sun to part shade, growing to 1' high by 2' wide. Many cultivars and hybrids come in pink, magenta, or yellow-orange colors.
- Frikart's aster (Aster x frikartii ‘Monch') fills a difficult niche by blooming at a time of year when there is little forage in the garden. It puts on a display of lavender-colored blooms from summer into fall, which can be extended by deadheading. Provide some summer water and full sun. Grows to 1.5' tall by 1' wide.
- Blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora) is one of my favorite low-water plants with its cheery, red and yellow blooms that last from late spring until frost. Plant in full sun, removing spent blooms to extend the season. It forms compact mounds about 1' high and wide. Blanket flower is an herbaceous perennial, and will die to the ground in winter. Watch for snails and slugs when they re-emerge in spring.
- Dusty miller (Senecio cineraria/Jacobaea maritima/Cineraria maritimus) has a long list of botanical aliases. Whatever you call it, Dusty miller makes a wonderful accent with it's silvery, fuzzy foliage and bright yellow flowers. An easy-care plant that is usually sold in nurseries like annuals (i.e. in 6-packs), they are evergreen and tough in our climate, requiring some water but having a decent amount of drought tolerance. Grows to 2' high and wide, blooming late spring through summer.
Eriogonum species (Buckwheat)
Some of my favorite California natives are buckwheats; they are hardy, beautiful, and very attractive to native pollinators. Their tightly clustered flowers sit atop umbels rising 1 – 3 feet above the basal mound, depending on the species. Most species in cultivation are evergreen.
- St. Catherine's Lace (Eriogonum giganteum) is a real show-stopper, with it's silvery-green foliage and towering flower stalks to 3' tall. Atop each stalk sits a dinner plate-sized cluster of white flowers that attracts honeybees and butterflies; the flower heads age to rust as they dry, making a great accent for flower arrangements. This is a very large shrub, reaching up to 6' tall and wide when in bloom. Requires little water once established.
- Rosy buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens) is at the opposite end of the size spectrum. This 1' tall, 1.5' wide perennial produces beautiful dark pink flower clusters in summer, attracting bees from many different families. Water 2-3 times a month once established. Likes morning sun and some afternoon shade.
More information on buckwheats can be found at:blogs.esanjoaquin.com/gardening/2014/09/12/buckwheats-for-central-valley-gardens/
Ceanothus species (California lilac) are some of California's most beloved natives, ranging in size from low-growing
Visited by many bee and butterfly species, Ceanothus blooms in late March through late April, a valuable time slot and a way to extend your forage availability into the early part of the growing season. Many species, hybrids, and cultivars are available in nurseries; the following are recommended by the UC Davis Arboretum Teaching Nursery:
- Ceanothus ‘Concha' is a medium-large shrub to about 6 feet tall and wide with dark blue flowers.
- Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman' is a large shrub to 20' tall and wide with sky blue flowers. Can be grown as a small tree.
- Ceanothus ‘Valley Violet' is a 4-foot shrub with long lasting violet-colored flowers
For more information on providing for pollinators, visit the Honey Bee Haven's website: