A Few Fabulous Pollinator Plants

(Photo above: Asarinia, an annual, self-attaching climber, is loved by bees and butterflies).

First, a few words about pollinator gardens….

  • While most of my recommendations here are summer and fall bloomers, pollinator gardens include plants which bloom from early spring to late fall. Some plants I recommend here are annuals which, when regularly dead-headed, will bloom from early spring into the fall.    
  • Remember to include plants which not only feed pollinators, but which provide a place to nest and possibly overwinter, and some used by butterflies as host plants for their larvae. Solidago and Helenium, for example, are not only bee food plants, but also hollow stemmed plants bees nest in.
  • Plant choices should include a diversity of shape and colour to attract a diversity of pollinators. While some pollinators, like honeybees, are generalists, others frequent specific plant shapes. Long-tongued bees (and hummingbirds) prefer lipped and deep tubular flowers like those of Salvias, Aquiligeas, and Lathyrus. Other smaller bees and butterflies prefer flat umbels like flowers of the Apiaceae (carrot) family. Some flowers have evolved to require ‘buzz pollination’, a procedure performed by bumblebees on the flowers of plants like tomatoes and borage. Diverse colours will also attract different pollinators. While red flowers are especially attractive to hummingbirds, lavender, blue, green, and white, are colours bees see and prefer.
  • ‘Nativars’ (native cultivars) have a place in a pollinator garden as long as they are comparable to their parent as a food source. Current studies show that the best nativars resemble the parent in colour, bloom time, and structure. In my garden, if a new introduction is not frequently visited by pollinators, I discard it.
  • Finally, in order to plant colonies of recommended plants (several specimens are best), try growing from seed. It is more economical and will enable you to plant some of the following recommendations which are difficult to find in garden centres.

Try these annuals, biennials, and perennials in your pollinator gardens…

Boraginaceae family

The following members of the Boraginaceae family are bee magnets. They need full sun or part shade, are drought tolerant, and easy to grow from seed.

Borago (Borage), an annual, self sows from season to season in my garden. It has sky blue edible flowers, and is a top nectar plant for bees.

Cerinthe (Honeywort), zone 7, is grown as an annual here. It has bluish green leaves, with small bluish purple flowers, and is a rich food source for bees.

Symphytum x uplandicum (Russian Comfrey), perennial here, has deep roots which bring nutrients deep in the soil to the leaves of the plant. Cut down in midsummer, the plant easily regrows. Leaves are used for comfrey tea fertilizer, and are excellent for the compost bin. The species plant is large and spreads too much for an urban garden. I am currently trying the cultivar ‘Axminster Gold’ which is pictured below and is supposedly much better behaved.

Phacelia tanacetifolia (Purple Tansy), is an annual herb with soft feathery foliage and cymes of fuzzy lavender blooms loved by pollinators. It grows rapidly from garden-sown seed, and, when sown several times throughout the summer, provides flowers all season.

Agastache foeniculum

Agastache foeniculum (Anise hyssop), a perennial native, is drought tolerant and prefers full sun to partial shade. It has lovely aromatic foliage and lavender flowers, and blooms from late June to the end of August in my garden. It is loved by butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Below is pictured the yellow-leafed cultivar ‘Queen’s Jubilee’ which I find as popular with pollinators as the native. This plant self sows everywhere in my garden.

Digitalis (Foxgloves)

Digitalis (Foxgloves) have tubular flowers loved by bees and hummingbirds. While I grow several species, one that engenders the most pollinator activity in my garden is Digitalis ferruginea gigantea. Extremely tall, it provides vertical interest with its long spires of small rusty coloured flowers. It blooms from early July to mid August, and is always surrounded by visiting wool carder bees, bumblebees, and all sorts of smaller native bees and wasps. All parts of the plant are toxic.

Veronicastrum virginicum (Culver’s Root)

Another tall pollinator perennial (pictured below) is the native  Veronicastrum virginicum (Culver’s Root). It prefers full sun or part shade, has hollow stems, and is constantly visited by bees, butterflies, and predatory wasps. ‘Lavender Towers’, a cultivar, is as popular as the native in my garden.

Lamiaceae (mint) family – Salvias or Sages

Salvias or Sages, members of the Lamiaceae (mint) family, have tubular lipped flowers, and are very popular with hummingbirds. Try the annual Salvia coccinea ‘Summer Jewel Red and Pink’ (pictured first below), and the tall tender perennial ‘Black and Blue’ (pictured second). Richters in Goodwood, Ontario, (an excellent source of herb and vegetable seeds and plants) has a wide variety of salvias. They prefer full sun, and, once established, are drought tolerant. Deadhead regularly to keep them blooming.

Verbena bonariensis

Verbena bonariensis, (zone 7, but often regrows from the roots in Zone 5), has long stems with flat heads of small lavender flowers. If regularly deadheaded, it blooms all summer.


Many petunias, native to South America, are pollinated by humming moths (diurnal) The Hummingbird Clearwing Moth is a daily visitor to my petunias.

One species, Petunia exserta, easily grown from seed, is pollinated by hummingbirds. Below, it runs along the edge of a perennial border.

Caryopteris (Bluebeard, Blue Mist Shrub)

Caryopteris (Bluebeard, Blue Mist Shrub) species are members of the Lamiaceae (mint) family and are native to east Asia. They are drought tolerant, prefer full sun and good drainage, have aromatic foliage and lavender flowers, and bloom from mid August through September. They are a good source of nectar and pollen for butterflies, and native bees in the late season garden.

They will die to the ground in a harsh winter but regrow well the following summer. In my Zone 5 garden, they rarely have winter damage.  Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Worchester Gold’ (below) has fragrant yellow foliage and lavender flowers. C. divaricata ‘Snow Fairy’ is a taller shrub with variegated foliage a small fairy-like lavender blooms.

Questions and Answers

  • What seed sources do you recommend, in addition to the local Seedy Saturday you mentioned?

I get seeds from a variety of sources. When purchasing from a seed house, I look for organic seed sources first. For unusual seeds, I search the net for the best source. Seeds of Diversity is an organization of Canadian seed savers working to protect plant diversity. Their website lists some reliable commercial seed sources.

  • How do you feel about milkweed? Do you have alternative suggestions for monarch butterflies?

       Asclepias species are native to North America, have nectar rich flowers, and are critical host plants for the survival of the Monarch butterfly. In my small urban garden. I avoid the perennial A. syriaca (Common Milkweed), as it becomes invasive and A. incarnata, (Swamp Milkweed), as it requires moist soil. The two species I have grown are A. tuberosa (Butterflyweed), a perennial, and A. curassavica (Tropical Milkwee) grown as an annual here.  All milkweeds do best in full   sun. There are many others food sources for Monarchs, but only the one host plant for its larvae.

  • Ants are crawling into existing holes in my neighbours’ tree. What could be the problem?

They could be carpenter ants nesting in cavities with internal decay, or ants attracted to the tree because it is infected with honeydew producing insects (aphids, for example), a problem I encountered a few years ago with a fruit tree. In both cases, the problem should be eradicated as ant infestations are harmful to gardens and existing structures nearby.

  • I have red bugs on my dill.

I am unaware of a red bug that attacks dill. To identify and insect in your garden, take a picture of it and send it to https://bugguide.net  for identification.

  • I have a caterpillar eating up a milkweed.  

Again, take a picture and send to the site above for identification if it is not a Monarch caterpillar. When dealing with caterpillars, I always identify my guest before deciding whether action is required.

  • My Liatris has difficulty growing in full sun. I have amended the soil, but it is still not doing well. Rabbits chewed it down two years ago.

You may have a poor specimen or the wrong site for the plant. I would move it first and see if it benefits from the new location. If not, I would discard it and try another. When purchasing plants, I always choose a strong, vigorous specimen grown locally if possible.