During lawn-mowing season, wildflowers in yards and along roadsides are cut often, leaving nothing for our pollinators to feed upon. Therefore, it’s very helpful to grow an assortment of flowers for their benefit. You can assist these insects even if you don’t have a yard, but do have a sunny space for planter pots or boxes.
My favorite flowers for container growing are Lantana (Lantana camara) and French Marigolds (Tagetes patula). Marigolds are annuals easily started outdoors from seed after the last frost date. Lantana is a tender perennial that can be grown outdoors only during the frost-free months of the year. It becomes woody by the end of summer and needs to be brought indoors if you want to keep it going until warm weather returns.
In cultivated flower gardens, Zinnia (Zinnia spp.) and Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) are easy-to-grow annuals that can be started from seed after the danger of frost has passed. Most annuals tend to bloom all summer. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) are perennials that are quite popular with several species of butterflies. Perennials are often sold as seedlings, but you can start these species from seed. An additional bonus to growing any of these plants is that you can provide food for birds.
By allowing the marigolds, zinnias, cosmos, and coneflowers to go to seed (no deadheading required!) and leaving the plants standing, you may get a chance to observe American Goldfinches picking out the seeds to feed their young in late summer. Goldfinches are highly unusual in that they mostly feed chicks regurgitated seeds instead of insects. Lantana blooms are extremely attractive to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that will visit along with numerous kinds of bees and butterflies for nectar.
Seeds or seedlings of all these plants can be found at nurseries, grocery stores, farm-supply stores, some department stores or through mail-order nursery catalogs. If you don’t want to spend money, don’t use herbicides in your yard and embrace the wildflowers that show up on their own. Three of the earliest wildflowers to bloom in spring that are popular with pollinators are Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea), and Hoary Bittercress (Cardamine hirsute). These plants are extremely important because they supply some of the first-available nectar for insects coming out of hibernation. You can use a wildflower guide to identify them.
Some flowering shrubs that attract butterflies are blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) and Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora). If you plant blueberry bushes, you’ll get fruit for yourself (unless you allow squirrels and birds access), and beautiful red fall color (my favorite!). Buckeye will provide you with tall spikes of white flowers that attract all kinds of pollinators.
Two caterpillar food plants that can be grown easily are Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) for Monarchs and False Nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica) for Red Admirals.
Some of these plants also attract moths, such as day-flying clearwings and early-evening sphinx moths. Watch your plants at all hours and you’ll be amply rewarded for your gardening efforts.
Marlene A. Condon is the author/photographer of The Nature-friendly Garden: Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People (Stackpole Books; information at www.marlenecondon.com). You can read her blog at https://InDefenseofNature.blogspot.com/