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What You Can Do for Pollinator Week

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

Pollinator week began fourteen years ago after the U.S. Senate unanimously approved & designated a week in June for “National Pollinator week." It has since grown into an international celebration managed by Pollinator Partnership.

So how to celebrate? Hands down (preferably in some dirt) the very best thing you can do for Pollinator Week and pollinators in general is to plant flowers. You can start as small as a plant and a single square foot in your yard, or similarly sized round planter pot. Every flower adds a little more forage for bees and other pollinators such as butterflies, moths, flies, beetles and birds. If everyone would just add one flower, think of the habitat connectivity we could build across our cities and towns.

So then the question is, which flowers? Does any old flower help pollinators?

Unfortunately, no, not really, because not all flowers help bees or other insects. The very best resources of pollen and nectar are native plants (the ones we dug up in order to build our towns and homes in the first place). The worst flowers to choose are overly hybridized or bred to be decorative, such as flowers with double petals, which make it hard for pollinators to reach the nectar and pollen, or ones that have lost either their pollen or their nectar altogether.

Two WaNBS members, Joe Dlugo, from the west side of the Cascades, and Lisa Robinson, from the east side of the state, chose some of their favorite commonly available plants to share These are plants you can likely find at your local nursery today and enjoy bees for the rest of the season. It just so happens that many have native cousins as well as cultivars to choose from.

Our take on the top 5 easy to grow, summer-blooming pollinator plants that can be found at a typical nursery:

  • Blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata)

  • Tickseed (Coreopsis spp.)

  • Hyssop (Agastache spp.)

  • Beardtongue (Penstemon spp.)

  • Catnips (Nepeta spp.)

Of course, the world of pollinator plants isn't limited to these five. One easy trick to discover new plants is to visit your local nursery and see if you spot bees, butterflies, or the occasional hummingbird among the flowers. Spotting several on a particular kind of plant is a good hint that it will work.

Blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata)

Two dark bees visit the red florets of a blanket flower
Blanketflower with mason bees (Osmia sp.) visiting

Blanket flowers are very easy to grow because they tolerate dry conditions and can even be found growing along the harsh edges of our highways. They will grow equally well on both sides of the mountains. There are two color forms, one with solid yellow petals, and another ringed with various amounts of red with yellow tips. Pollinators don’t seem to have a preference. Lisa spreads the seeds from previous years all over the hillside above their home, adding more color each year. Joe usually adds a dozen or so blanket flowers to his garden every year as magnets for exciting species like large leafcutter bees and metallic green bees. On the west side, they will often bloom into December if dead-headed. An easy plant to grow from seeds, however it usually won't bloom its first year.

Tickseed (Coreopsis spp.)

Tickseed flowers with metallic green bees on them
Tickseed with Agapostemon bees visiting

Coreopsis, also called tickseed, can be found in many cultivars, including Large-flowered tickseed, C. grandiflora; Thread-leaf Tickseed, C. verticillata; and the pink colored C. rosea. The red-centered ones in the photo are from a flower strip planted at an organic orchard. The wild species called Coreopsis tinctoria calliopsis, Columbia coreopsis, has tall thin stems topped with smaller flowers that have smaller dots of red at the base of its petals. Lisa’s Threadleaf tickseed has slowly spread into plants roughly a yard-wide with feathery leaves that look a bit like dill (no smell included). The rhizomes are fairly well behaved and can be pulled back as needed, but she likes the way they weave amongst their neighbors. A commonly found Coreopsis for summer planting is the "Zagreb" cultivar. It is a short, clump-forming perennial with yellow flowers and a long, bee-inviting bloom time from June to September.

Hyssops (Agastache spp.)

Bumble bee upside down on hyssop flowers
Bumble bee on Agastache urticifolia

There are many cultivars of Hyssop, which is also called Agastache. This wild Hyssop in the first photo is from a gravel pit outside Wilbur. Lisa spotted purple out of the corner of her eye when driving home from a family reunion, turned back, and discovered tons of happy Bumble bees filling up before bedtime. The pink-flowered cultivar in the second photo is from Lowes, one of the few plants available the summer they built their patio that needed planting before an event. She did not stop to look at the zone tag, which was zone 7 (Wenatchee was zone 5) so about half have passed on. The most cold tolerant still continue to bloom every year. (The tiny Halictid bee is robbing some nectar out of the base of the flower tube because he can’t reach it any other way - his tongue isn’t near as long as a Bumble bee’s.) Joe grows several varieties of hyssop and finds the smaller-flowered varieties to attract an exciting array of small solitary bees, including Heriades and Protosmia, whereas the larger-flowered types are favored by bumble bees. You're most likely to find blue hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) cultivars at your local nursery this time of year. All varieties are superb bee attractors, but keep an eye out for the long-blooming "Blue Fortune" variety, and the late-blooming "Blue Blazes."

Catnips (Nepeta spp.)

A tiny halictus bee is dwarfed by a large Nepeta flower
Catnip (Nepeta sp.)

Nepeta, called catnip or catmint, incudes the plant your cats appreciate. Lisa’s was a one off, from a local store. Unfortunately she doesn’t know which of over 250 species it is, but it behaves differently from the common one. It spreads very slowly, is tall with larger greener leaves and has bright purple flowers. Joe plants several random varieties he has acquired over the years, but finds the large-flowered "Neptune" catnips positively magical. All catnips will attract great amounts of bees, are easy to grow, and are extremely drought tolerant.

Beardtongue (Penstemon spp.)

A small green native bee visits Chelan Penstemon
Chelan Penstemon

We have some very lovely native penstemons and it is worth finding your local native plant nursery to find them. One you may have seen growing in mats covered in lavender-purple flowers on the roadcuts while crossing the passes, is Shrubby Penstemon, Penstemon fruticosus. It is perfect for dry areas, but also tolerates some watering. If you visit Lake Chelan you might spot pretty blue Chelan penstemon along the highway on the west side of the Columbia River.

Lisa’s favorite is Cutleaf penstemon, Penstemon richardsonii. She finds watching the big Bumble bees trying to squeeze inside or the way the flowers dip down under their weight endlessly entertaining. Like many other penstemon, P. richardsoni tolerates some water and grows larger for a few years, but they are not especially long-lived. Luckily it self-sows if the seeds are left to ripen. Joe grows Penstemon serrulatus in his rainy garden and finds its early summer bloom to be extraordinary. If its stems are clipped short immediately after bloom, it will re-bloom in fall. Native varieties might be hard to find this time of year, but hybrid penstemons abound at nurseries. Try watching for bee activity while visiting your local nursery or box store outlet to pick one they favor.

As a final note, WaNBS board member Kate Walker reminds us about “not using herbicides and pesticides, and suggests choosing a diversity of flower types and bloom periods. Also, check with your local native plant nursery for the species that will grow best in your area:” Note that some of the nurseries listed are wholesale only and some have catalog or mail order for seeds. The US Forest service, Gardening for Pollinators page has more basic recommendations for making your pollinator patch even better.

If you have the space to add more we won’t stop you!

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