12 Plants With Year-Round Pollinator Appeal
Pollinators are crucial to our survival, but many are facing threats from habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, and other factors. The right plants provide much-needed food and shelter for them throughout the year.
Pollinators—bees, butterflies, bats, birds, wasps, moths, beetles, flies, and other insects and mammals—are essential for our survival. Three-quarters of flowering plants and 35 percent of food crops rely on animal pollinators in order to reproduce. Plants produce the oxygen we need to breathe and they purify the water and prevent erosion.
Habitat loss, pollution, disease, parasites, climate change, use of pesticides, and nutrient deficiency have led to the decline of many pollinators. Bees are now considered endangered species, with 46 percent of honey bee colonies lost in 2020 and wild populations experiencing drastic decline, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Therefore, it’s important to assist our pollinators by providing food, shelter, nest-building materials, and places to meet and mate.
1. Crocus (Crocus)
Often the first flowers to appear in the spring in northern gardens, crocus provide pollen and nectar when little else is available. Only 2”-4” tall, these flowers emit a strong perfume that awakens and attracts bees and other pollinators, who are especially drawn to the purple varieties. Easy-to-grow crocus corms (and other spring-flowering bulbs) should be planted in the fall in a sunny location in Zones 3-8. Plant in drifts for a bigger impact.
2. Apple tree (Malus domestica)
Just about the time spring bulbs are finished flowering, fruit trees start blooming. Apple, crab apple, peach, plum, pear, cherry, citrus, and blueberry trees produce spring flowers that attract bees and other pollinators, who assist in pollination that enables them to produce fruit. Even self-pollinating fruit trees benefit from animal pollinators. Note: fallen fruit left to decay provides food for pollinators through summer and fall.
3. Pussy willow (Salix)
Another early spring bloomer, pussy willow produces buds that open to catkins that look like tiny flowers crowded together. The male catkins produce nectar and pollen-laden stamens. The female catkins produce nectar. Each bush is either male or female. Both attract bees, birds, and other insects. Grown in wetland areas in Zones 4-8, these fast-growing deciduous shrubs are easy to care for in full sun or partial shade.
4. Lavender (Lavendula)
The aromatic perennial with gray-green foliage and lavender-colored blooms is a favorite food source for bees. Blooming during a midsummer gap when many other plants aren’t, it contains both nectar and pollen. Lavender is a favorite of bumblebees, but is also loved by honey bees. Grown in zones 5-9, this resilient, compact shrub thrives in full sun and well-draining soil. Note: it is toxic to dogs and cats.
5. Marjoram (Origanum majorana)
Herbs can be wonderful mid-summer pollinators. If allowed to bloom, marjoram produces small pink or purple blossoms atop small, oval, gray-green, strongly scented leaves. A perennial in zones 9 and 10, it can easily be grown as an annual in northern gardens, where it grows to only about 24 inches tall by 18 inches wide in sunny, dry spaces. Honey bees, bumblebees, and butterflies in particular like this herb.
6. Marigolds (Tagetes)
Cheerful, bright marigolds are wonderful companion plants for vegetable gardens, but are equally at home in flower gardens and containers. Wherever they’re planted, these small annuals bloom through summer’s heat, providing pollen and nectar for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Easy to grow from seed, long-lived marigolds usually prosper until a hard freeze, transitioning pollinators through autumn. Some varieties are ranked No. 4 in producing nectar and No. 3 in producing pollen.
7. Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
A tall biennial with tubular-shaped flowers, foxglove grows in zones 4-10, blooming in its second year. Long-tongued bees like bumblebees and carder bees, as well as hummingbirds, favor the lengthy bell-shaped flowers. Although the plants die after blooming, foxglove can be encouraged into a second round of blooms if they’re cut back after the first flowers fade. Note: foxglove is toxic to humans and all animals.
8. Sedum (Sedum)
Prized for its succulent-like leaves, sedums produce star-shaped flowers in mid-summer to fall. Ideal for rock gardens, slopes, and mixed borders, both the creeping variety and taller cultivars are tolerant of poor, sandy soil and hot, dry conditions. Perennial in zones 3-11, sedum attracts butterflies and other insect pollinators during the dog days of summer when some flowers wilt.
9. Asters (Asteraceae)
Daisy-shaped flowers of pink, purple, or blue appear on asters from August to October, providing much-needed nectar for pollinators late in the year. Grown in full sun in zones 3-8, this perennial can grow from 1 foot to 4 feet tall, depending on the variety. Bees and butterflies are attracted to this cold-hardy mounding plant, and many birds (such as cardinals, finches, nuthatches, chickadees, and other seed eaters) like the seed heads.
10. Ivy (Hedera helix)
Because many pollinators hibernate in northern climes during the winter, they need shelter and a place to build nests. English ivy’s dense growth provides shelter for bumblebees, butterflies, hoverflies, and moths. In addition to providing shelter, mature ivy is a late-season food source for pollinators and produces black berries that are consumed by birds over the winter. Grown as a self-clinging climber or a ground cover in zones 4-9, the shade-loving ivy has shiny leaves that may be variegated.
11. Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
The spiny hawthorn tree provides shelter, protection from predators (with its thorns, or haws), and food for bees, birds, butterflies, moths, and other pollinators year-round. Small white flowers offer both nectar and pollen, while berries and seeds feed birds. It also supports caterpillars, but double-flowered varieties are less accessible to bees. The often-tall hawthorn prefers full sun and well-drained soil in zones 4-8.
12. Holly (Ilex)
Often considered a Christmas plant, holly makes an excellent winter garden plant. Its dense, spiky green leaves provide a great place for holly blue butterflies and bees to hibernate. Tiny white flowers in the summer are followed by red berries in the fall if you have a female or self-fertile variety. Moist soil and full sun or part shade suit this climber, which benefits from pruning. Different varieties grow in zones from 4 to 11.