15 Perennials to Plant for Pollinators
From the food we eat to the clothing we wear, pollinators play a vital role in our day to day lives. As you’re probably aware, they’re struggling. Pollinators today face habitat loss, global warming, and poisonous pesticides and herbicides. If you’d like to support pollinators on your property, consider adding a few pollinator-friendly perennials this fall or next spring. Perennial plants support pollinators in a variety of life stages and some bloom earlier and more reliably than annual garden plants. Here are a few great choices:
North America’s only native large fruit, Pawpaws are a key food source for the caterpillar of the Zebra Swallowtail. Interestingly, their flowers are pollinated not by bees or butterflies, but flies! Their fruit is a delicious late-summer treat that’s often likened to custard.
Pennyroyal makes an excellent groundcover and spreads readily. It has clusters of tiny, purple flowers that attract a plethora of pollinators. Our pennyroyal patch is always buzzing with activity when it’s in bloom. Traditionally, pennyroyal was used in an ingredient in emmenagogues.
Beautiful and useful, echinacea is utilized by a variety of pollinators. We’ve found goldfinches also like to perch on ours in the middle of the garden. We also grow echinacea for its amazing immune-boosting properties. The roots, leaves, and flowers can all be used to create tinctures and teas.
If you’d like to make our own beer a few hop vines can be a great choice for your homestead. They’re also attractive plants and a host plant for the Question Mark butterfly.
This shade-tolerant garden plant is mostly used for its foliage but it also offers spires of purple blooms. We’ve found these flowers to be a favorite of hummingbirds and bumblebees. Additionally, young hosta leaves can be eaten in stir fries. At our house they make excellent use of a shady spot against the house where other plants have trouble.
The name of this plant is pretty self-explanatory. It’s showy orange flowers attract bees, butterflies, and even some birds. It’s a hardy perennial and does well when seeded in the fall.
Apple Trees (and other fruit trees)
Fruit trees are an excellent choice for anyone who wants to increase their food production. Their blooms (particularly those species that bloom in early spring) are loved by pollinators. We’ve also had several hummingbirds use our apple trees to nest. Some species of plums and cherries are also butterfly larval host plants.
Bee Balm (Monarda)
A favorite of bees and hummingbirds, bee balm sometimes call monarda or bergamot (not to be confused with bergamot oranges) can be used to make tea or flavor food. You can find seed for the variety of bee balm native to Appalachia at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
If you like butterflies you’ve probably already heard about how this host plant is vital to the survival of the beloved Monarch butterfly. Common milkweed is closely related to butterfly weed but has pinkish, purple flowers rather than orange. It can be grown from seed or the roots are sometimes available at local nurseries and should be fall planted.
Gooseberries are an easy to care for edible crop for humans and are the larval host plant for Gray Comma butterflies. They can be ordered bare-root and planted in the fall or spring.
This commonly used cover crop fixes nitrogen in the soil and provides flowers for a variety of pollinators throughout the summer season. It’s also a host plant for Alfalfa butterflies and Clouded Sulfurs.
Offering attractive spring flowers, the spicebush is an important host plant for Spicebush Swallowtails (they’ll also utilize sassafras). They also have nice foliage and the female plants have red berries. They can be planted from seed in the fall.
While willows generally aren’t known as great nector plants they are important to butterflies. They’re utilized as host plants for several species including Eastern and Western Tiger Swallowtails, Viceroys, Weidemeyer’s Admirals, Mourning Cloaks, and more. Willows are also easy to get for free if you’re not picky about the variety because they root readily from cuttings.
Generally known as a nuisance weed, thistle actually has a lot going for it. Thistle is a host plant for Painted Lady butterflies and is known to be a favorite nectar source of Silver-Bordered Fritillaries, Monarchs, and several bee species. Its seeds are also a favorite of goldfinches. There are a number of thistle varieties (both native and non-native) and they tend to spread so do your research before planting.
Violets obviously offer early-season blooms but they’re also the sole larval food source of the Silver-Bordered Fritillaries. Additionally, they’re edible and have medicinal value. To learn more about violets and how to create your own violet syrup check out, Foraging: Violets Plus a Violet Syrup Recipe.
If you want to help pollinators consider going beyond the standard annual pollinator mix. Adding some of these perennials can help diversify your garden and create important wildlife habitat. Plus, many of these choices do double duty, providing food or medicine for humans and butterflies.