Grow Your Own Habitat
Transform your yard into a haven for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds with these Wasatch Front-friendly pollinator plants.
Most gardens support pollinators by providing some nectar and shelter. You can make your garden more beneficial insect-friendly by adopting the following practices.
- Grow plants that bloom over long periods and are in flower when local native species are not blooming, such as butterfly bushes and agastaches.
- Include ornamental grasses and shrubs in your landscape to provide shelter for pollinators.
- Remove faded flowers before they set seed. This keeps many common garden plants blooming much longer, increasing the duration of availability of nectar and pollen.
- Leave your garden untrimmed for winter and early spring. This simple practice provides shelter to overwintering pollinators and their offspring.
- Include plants from the mint, carrot, sunflower, mallow and rose families, as they are generally beloved by pollinators.
- Mulching is good, but leave some bare soil open in the garden, as it accommodates small ground-nesting pollinators.
- Pollinators need fresh water— a birdbath or small pond is appreciated.
- Be informed of your plant’s growth habit and characteristics before you plant to ensure that it is not invasive and disruptive to local ecosystems or your garden.
Generally, the following plants require full sun (minimum six hours per day), unless indicated, and some prefer to be watered minimally during the summer. Many low-water-use and native plants are happiest when planted on a slope to improve drainage during the winter months.
The following are plants that I have observed to be stellar performers both ecologically and aesthetically in my work as a horticulturist at Red Butte Garden and as an independent garden designer and gardener.
Woody plants (trees and shrubs)
Fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium) – Fernbush attracts the highest diversity of pollinators of any Utah native plant. Grows 5 ft. high x 6 ft. wide with fragrant, white flowers in summer and requires no summer water after it’s established.
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) – This low-growing medicinal herb offers a multitude of small dark purple flowers, which are loved by bees, over several months. Water hyssop weekly to extend its flowering period. Shear back after blooming.
Butterfly Bush (Buddleia sp.) – From 8-ft.-tall giants to small mounding shrubs with new flower colors coming on the market regularly, there is probably a butterfly bush for every garden. Favored by butterflies and moths but also visited by bees. Removing spent flowers will keep these blooming summer through fall.
Creeping Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens) – This ubiquitous evergreen shade-loving low shrub opens its bright yellow fragrant flowers underneath the Gambel oaks of the Wasatch foothills in early spring. Select your plants from the nursery in late fall or early spring to get ones with the best purple winter foliage color.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) – While rosemary is somewhat difficult to establish in the Salt Lake valley, it blooms randomly throughout the growing season, often in early spring, summer and fall. Site this plant in full sun and wrap with burlap the first winter. After surviving one winter, rosemary plants usually do well as long as they are not overwatered. Enjoy fresh rosemary while providing habitat and nectar!
Lavender (Lavandula sp.) – Commonly planted, with good reason. Many lavenders bloom for a long time and will re-bloom if sheared back after the first flush of flowers has faded. They are very popular with many types of pollinators. Colors range from white to pink to the darkest purples. ‘Grosso’ and ‘Royal Velvet’ have been excellent performers at Red Butte Garden.
Herbaceous plants (annuals, biennials and perennials)
Globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) – Globemallow brings a shot of warm orange flowers and fuzzy light grey leaves to the garden. Desert globemallow blooms throughout the summer and well into fall and also comes in white and pink forms. Several species of globe mallow do well in dry gardens including the Utah native gooseberryleaf mallow (S. grossularifolia).
Moon Carrot (Seseli gummiferum) – As the name implies, this incredibly cool garden specimen looks like it came down from outer space. Umbels consisting of domed clusters of tiny white flowers spiral atop stems that twist and wander creating a psychedelic garden show you won’t soon forget. Moon carrots attract a menagerie of strange pollinators as well—so many that you may want to set up a chair to watch the action. They are short-lived biennials/perennials that bloom in the second or third year of growth and die after flowering. But they leave behind a good crop of seeds to ensure future generations. Plant these two years in a row to ensure flowers every year.
Mountain Mint (Monardella odoratissima) – As with most plants in the mint family, these always have a small cloud of insects around their white-ish pink flowers while in bloom. Tolerant of partial shade and preferring some supplemental water in the summer, this 16-in.-tall western U.S. native can find a home in every garden. The dried leaves and flowers of this plant make a delicious tea and can be used as other mints in the kitchen. The low-growing Monardella macrantha ‘Marion Sampson’ is a true stunner with red flowers that is worth seeking out as well.
Aster (Aster, Symphyotrichum, etc.) – Asters fill a flowering gap from latest summer through fall, when little else is in bloom, providing crucial forage for bees and other insects. These midsized perennials (1-4 ft.) flower in colors from white to dark purple and are available for the full range of garden conditions. Avoid asters that spread by underground runners as they may take over your garden! Top performers include Aster oblongifolius ‘Dream of Beauty’, A. oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ and A. lateriflorus ‘Lady in Black’.
Hummingbird Mint (Agastache sp.) – Revel in the aerial displays of hummingbirds as they battle for territory around these strong garden performers. Sporting long-blooming, tubular flowers in a multitude of colors and sizes, including red, pink, orange, yellow and purple. These are often done in by overzealous watering so spare the hose when growing low-water varieties, the species cana, rupestris and aurantica and their associated multitude of varieties. For irrigated gardens try hybrids ‘Blue Blazes’ and ‘Blue Boa.’ The mid-elevation Utah native horsemint (Agastache urticifolia) thrives in irrigated gardens as well and attracts a broad range of pollinators.
Milkweed (Asclepias sp.) – No pollinator-friendly garden would be complete without at least one species of milkweed. These famous butterfly-attracting plants tend to look terrible in containers at the nursery, but don’t let that dissuade you. Look for varieties that prefer your soil type, as they are somewhat fussy. While milkweeds are slow to establish in the garden, they are well worth the wait. Standout choices for drier situations include A. speciosua ‘Davis’ and A. fasicularis. For the pond edge or wet garden try swamp milkweed (A. incarnata). In sandy soils, plant the glorious orange-flowered native A. tuberosa.
Beardtongues (Penstemon sp.) – These western US natives are beloved by many pollinators, especially bumblebees (Bombus sp.). The longest-blooming penstemon are the deep blue/ purple Rocky Mountain Penstemon (P. strictus aka strictiformis) and pineleaf penstemon (P. pinifolius) which is available in red, yellow and orange. With roughly 250 species of penstemon native to the western states, the choices are legion. Many species resent being watered in summer but are easy to grow in the dry garden.
Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii) – Sacred datura is a native perennial version of the popular garden annual. Its huge, purple-tinged, white, fragrant flowers perfume the evening air and attract the pollinating denizens of the night. Large, all black bumblebees and sphinx moths particularly enjoy ethereal blooms as darkness falls. The flowers last only one night and are borne on 3-ft. plants from mid-summer onward. Sacred datura is poisonous, so keep children, livestock and curious pets away and don’t eat it!
There are so many wonderful garden plants that serve pollinators available to us today that simply keeping a garden with some plants that have not had the reproductive parts bred out of them will be of some benefit to the ecosystem. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that there are lots of fantastic plants you can use to create pollinator-friendly gardens. Visit Red Butte Garden and your local nurseries to look for plants that are both attractive to you and to pollinators.
Fritz Kollmann is the lead horticulturist for the Water Conservation Garden at Red Butte Garden. He designs gardens, works in his own garden and enjoys skateboarding in his spare time.