Make Your Garden a Pollinator Paradise!

Make Your Garden a Pollinator Paradise

By Jill Maybry
Curator of the Pollinator and Delta Gardens
Memphis Botanical Garden

Summer has officially arrived, and with it, so have the heat and humidity that characterize Memphis summers! What does this mean for our gardens? It means that the blooms of early spring flowers have come and gone. It also means that the robust plants and flowers that thrive in our summer heat have entered their prime season! If your garden is not currently bursting with heat-loving annuals and perennials, then the good news is that you can easily begin to add some. The even better news is that many of the plants that thrive through our summers are also excellent plants to attract and support pollinators!

Pollinator is the general term for the bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other creatures that visit flowers and pollinate them, making it possible for the flowers to set fruits and seeds. Without them, our food chain would swiftly break down. Today, it is understood that pollinators, in general, face many threats, including habitat loss and the dangers of widespread chemical use. Fortunately, gardeners can take positive steps to help by choosing plants that are beneficial to the pollinators in their local areas. This can include host plants, which young insects such as butterfly caterpillars feed on, and nectar plants, which provide nutritious food in the form of pollen and nectar. Fortunately for Memphis gardeners, some of our most colorful garden flowers are also some of the best pollinator-benefitting plants around. Add several of these knockout garden performers to your yard, and not only will you be beautifying your landscape, but you’ll also be helping our local pollinators.

The verbena plant family offers many great garden plants. I’ve noticed two that butterflies are especially drawn to. Verbena ‘Homestead Purple’ is a low-growing, sprawling plant with large, vibrant clusters of deep purple flowers. This can be planted as a summer annual, but it can also be left in the ground over the winter, and it will often return as a hardy perennial in the spring, ready to burst forth with another season of blooms. Brazilian Verbena is the other verbena that I love to plant for pollinators. I was first introduced to this plant with the common name of “verbena-on-a-stick”, and that’s an apt description! This plant grows upright, with clusters of lavender-purple flowers at the ends of long, waving stalks. It will grow up behind and through other plants, adding airy height to the garden. Butterflies and bees will often be seen perched on the blooms.

Purple coneflower, a beautiful North American wildflower, is a hearty, colorful summer performer. Extensive breeding work has been done recently between the purple coneflower and its close relatives, resulting in some spectacular color options. One variety we’ve been impressed with at the Garden is called ‘Cheyenne Spirit’. These plants come in a mix of sunset hues including pink, red, orange, and yellow. Some of the plants have a wonderfully sweet fragrance (an unusual trait for coneflowers), and they all attract a variety of insects. Coreopsis is another hard-working native perennial. It stays short, reaching 12-24” tall, and has small daisy-like flowers. My favorite variety to plant for pollinators is ‘Route 66’, a threadleaf variety that bears masses of yellow blooms generously streaked with red.

Zinnias, long-term darlings of the summer garden, are excellent pollinator plants! These are annuals, so they’ll need to be replanted every year, but they grow quickly and will reward you with vibrant blooms. They’ve been hybridized extensively and can be purchased in nearly any shade imaginable. (Except blue!) I’ve become very fond of the ‘Benary’s Giant’ strain. Each blossom reaches nearly 6” across, and the plants grow to 40-50” tall. They make wonderful cut flowers, too -- just be sure to leave some outside for the pollinators! Another favorite annual of mine, a “must grow” every summer, is Tithonia, or Mexican sunflower. It forms a bushy clump of deep green foliage reaching 5-6’ tall by mid-summer and bears flowers of the brightest reddish-orange you can imagine. This stunner attracts not only bees and butterflies but hummingbirds as well! Every summer I enjoy watching the feisty little birds swoop in to sip nectar from the brilliant blooms.

All of these plants will provide pollen and nectar to attract our local pollinator friends and help keep them healthy. Most will bloom all summer and into the fall with a little bit of deadheading (cutting off the spent blooms before they go to seed). Let a few of the blooms mature and set seeds at the end of the season, and you’re likely to see goldfinches landing on them to pull out the seeds for a meal – just another benefit of planting your garden to benefit the wildlife!

All of these plants are well-suited to Memphis-area gardens and can all be seen blooming this summer at the Memphis Botanic Garden. Be sure to stop by the Pollinator Garden on your next visit for more ideas and inspiration.

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