Consider the plants that already exist on your site.
What food already exists for the pollinators in your landscape? Are there native trees, shrubs, or wildflowers that could be preserved and encouraged? Are there aggressive non-natives that need to be removed to improve native biodiversity?
Choose native flowers for your garden.
They are the best choice for attracting and nourishing a diversity of pollinator species. Native plant species have co-evolved with our native pollinators. The interactions between species through tens of thousands of generations have resulted in structural, chemical, and behavioral adaptations that are beneficial and often critical to both the plants and the pollinators. Native flowers support three to four times more pollinator species than non-natives and many caterpillars of butterfly and moth pollinators depend on specific native host plants for food. Local natives are better adapted to local soil and weather and they require less water and no added fertilizer. There are some good nectar- producing non-native plant species that can supplement the natives, but carefully choose species that do not have tendencies to take over an area and decrease your native diversity.
Choose plants adapted for your site conditions.
Is your garden spot sunny or shady or in-between? Is your soil dry or moist, acidic or alkaline, well-drained, seasonally wet, or boggy? Is your site sandy, heavy clay, garden loam, woodland humus, or a mix of soil types? Plants suited to the specifics of your site are more likely to flourish than ones struggling to survive in a mismatched habitat.
Choose a diversity of flowers.
A wild meadow might include dozens of flower species; biodiversity is a hallmark of healthy ecosystems. A University of CA study at Berkeley found that gardens with eight or more species will attract a significantly greater diversity of bees. Flowers of different colors, structures, scents, sizes, and growth habits will accommodate the needs of diverse pollinators.
Bees see yellow, blue, and purple, and are drawn to flowers of those colors and also to flowers with ultra-violet markings that humans do not see. Butterflies see bright colors but have a poor sense of smell. They are attracted to reds, oranges, and purples but are not drawn to scents as bees are. Hummingbirds are attracted to red flowers and flowers with recurved petals that are out of the way as they hover over a blossom. The length of a pollinator’s tongue determines which flower shapes it can access. The size of a pollinator in relation to a flower is also important. For example, snapdragon flowers will only open if stepped on by a bee of just the right weight. Learning specifics about plant-pollinator relationships is a fascinating and endless study that can unfold over years; simply planning for diversity is a good initial guideline when considering what to plant. Leap in, have fun, and learn from watching the pollinators that come to visit your flowers.
Choose flowers with different bloom times.
Ideally, try to plan continuous blooms from early spring to late fall. A small garden could offer one species that blooms in Spring, one in Summer, and one in the Fall. Adding complexity benefits more pollinators and more species of pollinators. A garden with three to five flower species that bloom in each season and overlap bloom times in the transition between seasons is great for providing a continual supply of nectar and pollen to resident pollinators. Bees typically nest close to their food sources and their foraging ranges vary from up to one mile for the largest bee species to only a few hundred feet for the smallest, with an average between 500 feet and half a mile. Within this relatively limited home range, the continuous availability of blooming flowers providing nectar to feed adult pollinators and pollen to feed bee nestlings can make a critical difference in their ability to survive and reproduce. Early blossoms will give bee populations a reproductive edge and late blossoms support the health and abundance of queen bumblebees going into hibernation.
Plant in clumps or drifts.
Clustering three or five or more plants of the same species together will attract more pollinators than single plants dispersed throughout the garden. Flowers of one species clustered in groups create a splashier visual display making them easier to find for foraging pollinators. When flowers are close together, pollinators spend less energy moving from blossom to blossom. Large designs often group 21 or more of the same plant. Drifts of a single species are visually pleasing to humans too!
Choose plants that are as close to their wild form as possible.
Plants that have been genetically selected by humans for particular characteristics such as size or color can lose their usefulness to pollinators in that selection process. Hybrids may not have the nectar and pollen resources that natives have. A useful generalization is to stick as close to the native species characteristics as possible for most plants, and accent your garden here and there with something fancier if you can’t resist.
Native plant cultivars, sometimes called nativars, may or may not attract pollinators the way that the straight wild species does. There is new research being done to determine which nativars retain or lose their usefulness to pollinators. A Vermont researcher, Annie White shares some of her research on this topic on her website.
Link habitats when possible.
Provide host plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars.
Plants eaten by insects for food are referred to as their host plants. The vast majority of plant-eating insects are plant specialists, meaning that they can feed only on a particular genus of plants as with Monarchs and Milkweeds. Butterflies and moths lay their eggs on or near the plant that will feed their larvae when they emerge hungry from the eggs. Without their host plant, they will die. If we plant a diversity of host plant species, we will attract and support a diversity of butterflies and moths. When our landscapes feed a wide variety of caterpillars, we are also providing food for more species of birds. Ninety five percent of our terrestrial bird species feed insect to their young, even if as adults they are seed eaters. The vast majority of those insects are caterpillars. The host plants that we add to our gardens are a great gift to the birds
Go to the resource page for several pollinator plant lists that contain lists of plants that serve as hosts. The lists will tell you which plants are necessary for which butterflies or moths. Below is an incomplete list of plants from Wing and a Prayer Nursery which serve as hosts.
These are just a few of many Pollinator Nectar Plants that are also Butterfly Host Plants
Common Name Botanical Name Butterfly Species
Nodding Onion Allium cernuum Hairstreak species
Pearly Everlasting Anaphalis margaritacea American Lady and several skippers
Wild Columbine Aquilergia Canadensis Columbine Duskwing
Swamp Milkweed Asclepias incarnate Monarch
Common Milkweed Asclepias syriaca Monarch
Butterfly Weed Asclepias tuberosa Monarch
Whorled Milkweed Asclepias verticillata Monarch
Smooth Blue Aster Aster laevis Pearl Crescent
Blue False Indigo Baptisia australis Wild Indigo Duskywing
Yellow Wild Indigo Baptisia tinctoria Wild Indigo Duskywing; Couded Sulphur
New Jersey Tea Ceanothus americanus Spring and Summer Azures
White Turtlehead Chelone glabra Baltimore Checkerspot
Shrubby St. Johnswort Hypericum prolificum Gray Hairstreak
Lupine species Lupinus sp. Silvery Blue
Wild Petunia Ruellia humilis Common Buckeye
Common Rue Ruta graveolens Giant Swallowtail; Black Swallowtail
New England Aster Symphiotrichum novae-anglia Pearl Crescent
Blue Vervain Verbena hastata Common Buckeye
Golden Alexanders Zizia aurea Black Swallowtail
Big Blue Stem Andropogon gerardii Deleware and Dusted Skippers
Purple Love Grass Eragrostis spectabilis Zabulon Skipper
Little Blue Stem Schizachyrium scparium Skippers: Cobweb,Indian,Crossline
Prairie Dropseed Sporobolis heterolepis Leonard’s Skipper