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Plant a garden for biodiversity: as the world's temperatures change, many species of birds, bees and butterflies will lose their feeding and breeding grounds. You can help these pollinators and, in turn the ecological cycle on which we all depend, by planning next year's garden as a source of food and shelter for these important creatures.

Some years ago, I planted a small butterfly bush in front of our house just outside Philadelphia. Within a year or two, I regularly counted a dozen or more butterflies at a time, including the swallowtails and cabbage whites that frequent our area, perching like miniature artworks on this now-tall bush with showy flower spikes, some upright, some gracefully drooping. Although butterfly bush is not native to the western hemisphere, I've discovered a wealth of native (and other exotic) plants that attract butterflies as well as hummingbirds and bees.

What do butterflies, hummingbirds and bees have in common? And why would we want to attract them to our gardens, other than for sheer aesthetic pleasure? The large group of animal species known as "pollinators," which includes various insects, birds and other wildlife, is unrelated except through their ecological role of pollinating most flowering plants (including trees.) This role is critical to humans because an estimated third of our food supply, as well as some of our fibers and medicines, depends on these pollinators.

We're aware of the threats to some of these species, such as monarch butterflies. A less-recognized problem is that many other pollinators, including native bees and honeybees (introduced from Europe, Africa and Asia), also suffer from declining populations. Among the factors contributing to these declines are improper use of pesticides, habitat loss or degradation, disease and competition from non-native species. As pollinator populations decline, so do the plants and trees that require them for pollination--and thus reproduction--and the complex networks of whole ecosystems can be disrupted.

So how can we help out these animals so they can continue to help us? We can make our gardens--large or small, urban, suburban or rural--good sources of food and shelter for pollinators. In return, we can see and literally taste the fruits of their labor, enjoy the pure delight of watching them and know that we are protecting our local ecosystems.

What pollinators need to thrive, like most creatures, are sources of water and food as well as shelter from harsh weather and predators. In many cases, the plants and trees we cultivate and other habitat elements we provide are beneficial to multiple pollinators. Pollinator species and the native plants they've evolved with often occur only in certain regions, so a good way to figure out what plants will most effectively attract them to your own garden is to simply observe pollinators in local parks or weedy areas.

General requirements for butterflies are plants for their caterpillars to feed on and large clumps of small, sun-loving flowers to provide nectar for adults. These plants include zinnias, marigolds, tithonia, buddleia, milkweeds, verbenas and most herbs if they are allowed to go to flower. Keep in mind that the caterpillars of many butterfly species feed on only one or a few plant species (though those plants may feed other species as well,) while some caterpillars feed on many species. Milkweed, for example, is a food source for monarchs and other butterflies, and is the sole food source for monarch caterpillars. While monarchs have a very restricted food source, eastern tiger swallowtails feed on tulip trees and lilacs, among a number of trees and bushes.

Besides food sources, some patches of long grass for egg-laying, open patches of damp soil or sand for nutrition and some flat stones in an open, sunny area for basking will provide a welcoming habitat for these gorgeous creatures. Beautiful and elegant as they are, butterflies are known to feed on animal carcasses and dung, which, along with sand, provide essential salts and other nutrients. To provide these, you can create an artificial puddle and "spike" it with mineral-rich sea salt and dung (see instructions on page 24).

Attracting local bees, or encouraging the ones already in your location, isn't hard. While honeybees and some bumble bees are social, living in colonies with a queen, most of the several thousand bee species in North America are solitary, meaning that most females build their own small nests. Many bee species prefer to nest in exposed, sandy, well-drained soil in sunny areas, while others prefer piles of branches, untreated lumber with nail or beetle holes, pithy stems or hollow reeds and bamboo--all of which should be kept dry. Mud with nearby water sources attracts mud-nesting bees, while unshaded, south-facing sandy banks, especially in cold climates, attract bees that nest underground; dry adobe walls and shallow caves attract other species. Bumble bees usually nest in abandoned field mouse nests, found in undisturbed areas such as woodlots, hedgerows, old barns and brush or compost piles. Hundreds of flowers species attract bees, of course, especially purple and blue ones, but don't overlook such humble flowers as the dandelion and clover, which thrive and blossom with no work on our part! As for stinging, which only females can do, most bee species aren't aggressive and generally ignore humans.

Hummingbirds, which have been called "the flowers of the air," are found only in the western hemisphere. Of the 340 known species, only the ruby-throated hummingbird is found regularly east of the Mississippi. Their feeding on flower nectar while hovering is well known, but few people realize that they also eat tiny insects and spiders. In fact, one more reason to avoid pesticides is the possible starvation of hummingbird nestlings if not enough insects are available--and sprayed pesticides can be directly lethal to these birds.

Hummingbirds visit flowers in both sun and shade, and while they are certainly attracted to tubular red flowers, they feed on other types as well--butterfly bush (buddleia) is a magnet for hummingbirds. Besides flowering plants, hummingbirds, like many birds, need shrubs or trees with dense foliage to provide shelter from predators and places for nesting and perching; they also need a source of water. If you use a hummingbird feeder, fill it with sugar-water (not a honey solution, which can support fungi that are fatal to hummingbirds); clean and refill the feeder every three to five days.

The tables on pages 24 and 25 list annual and perennial plants that attract butterflies and/or hummingbirds and/or bees, but don't forget that the flowers of trees and shrubs also provide nectar for these pollinators, as well as nuts and berries for many other birds and mammals. For example, spicebush (Lindera benzoin, whose leaves produce a delightful but delicate scent when crushed), sumac (Rhus species) and viburnums (Viburnum species) provide nectar for adult butterflies and bees as well as leaves for butterfly and moth caterpillars.

The National Academy of Sciences is currently conducting a study to document the status of pollinators in North America and to recommend actions to reverse their decline. In addition, a number of groups worldwide, including the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC), are working to conserve pollinators and their habitats and to educate the public about them.

If you're committed to maintaining a habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, you can apply for wildlife habitat certification (and the associated bragging rights) through the National Wildlife Foundation. Even planting a small area of pollinator-friendly plants may provide critical refueling for some migrating butterfly or bird, or a hard-working bee, so plant and then sit back and enjoy.

The butterflies and other wildlife are now frequenting our yard, and I'm consciously adding perennials and other elements to my garden that will sustain the pollinators that bring so much pleasure to our eyes (and organic produce to our table), a mutualism I expect to continue through the years.

Make your outdoor space pollinator-friendly

* Avoid using pesticides, even "natural" ones such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

* Choose old-fashioned varieties of flowers whenever possible, because breeding has caused some modern blooms to lose the fragrance and/or nectar needed to attract and sustain pollinators.

* Design your garden so that there is a continuous succession of plants flowering from spring through fall--check for the species or cultivars best suited to your area.

* If you decide to use plants that aren't native to your region, choose ones that don't spread easily, since these could become invasive.

* To provide puddles as a water source for butterflies (and other welcome visitors) without letting them become a mosquito breeding area, either refill containers daily or bury a shallow plant saucer to its rim in a sunny area, fill it with coarse pine bark or stones and fill to overflowing with water. Butterflies can drink from the cracks between the filler but mosquito larvae have a difficult time becoming established.

Learn More

Butterfly Gardens: Luring Nature's Loveliest Pollinators to Your Yard by Alcinda Lewis, editor (Brooklyn Botanic Garden Publications, 2006) Very useful reference for beginners and experienced gardeners; includes an "encyclopedia" of both butterflies and host plants by species, as well as lists of common butterflies in, and recommended host plants for, various regions of the U.S., and a plant hardiness zone map for all of North America.

Butterfly Gardening: Creating Summer Magic in Your Garden by The Xerces Society & Smithsonian Institution (Sierra Club Books, 1998) Contains reference information similar to that of the book above, but is geared toward the advanced gardener/butterfly lover, especially one looking for beautifully illustrated reading, with chapters on butterfly watching, butterfly ecology and night moths, plus suggestions on garden design. How-to articles on building boxes for bees and birds, gardening with kids, enhancing wildlife habitat, etc; from The National Wildlife Federation. Tips on gardening for bees and basic, useful bee facts; by Drs. Gordon Frankie and Robbin Thorp, professors of entomology at University of California, Berkeley. Details on milkweed species; seeds for ordering and information on creating monarch butterfly habitat. Bee-attracting plants; from the USDA-ARS (Agricultural Research Service), the "Logan Bee Lab". and Gardening for wildlife in general and pollinators specifically; from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. and Plants specific to each state and hardiness zones, respectively. Gardening for hummingbirds; from Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History Articles and fact sheets on specific gardening topics and species. Learn about invasive plants and native alternatives. A comprehensive and searchable Canadian native plant database by the Evergreen Foundation.

Author Robin Eisman is a volunteer with the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC). Visit their website at
Gardening for Pollinators

Genus or species           Butterflies   Hummingbirds   Bees

For Sunny Areas

Anise hyssop (giant             +             +          +
hyssop, Agastache spp.)

Asters (Aster spp.)             +                        +

Blazing-star, gayfeather        +             +          +
(Liatris spp.)

Butterfly bush (summer          +             +
lilac, Buddleia spp.)

Goldenrods                      +                        +
(Solidago spp.)

Lavenders                       +                        +
(Lavandula spp.)

Mexican sunflower               +             +          +
Tithonia rotundifolia

Milkweeds (Asclepias            +
spp, including butterfly
weed, A. tuberosa)

Purple coneflower               +                        +
(Echinacea purpurea)

Sunflowers                      +                        +
(Helianthus spp.)

Verbena                         +                        +

Zinnia (common zinnia,          +                        +
Zinnia spp.)

For Sunny or Semi-Shady Areas (Note: some of the following plants
flower more abundantly in full sun)

Sedum (stonecrop,               +                        +
Sedum spp.)

Yarrow                          +                        +
(Achillea spp.)

Black-eyed Susan                +                        +
(golden coneflower,
Rudbeckia spp.)

Red columbine                                 +          +
(Aquilegia canadense)

Spotted jewelweed               +             +
(spotted touch-me-not,
Impatiens campensis)

Bee balm (Oswego                +             +          +
tea, Monarda didyma)

Trumpet creeper                               +
(Campsis radicans)

Trumpet (coral)                 +             +
honeysuckle (Lonicera

Day lily                        +             +
(Hemerocallis spp.)

Cosmos                          +                        +

Penstemon, scarlet                            +          +
(Keckiella spp.)

Red buckeye                     +             +          +

Salvias (Salvia spp.)           +             +          +

Berry bushes:                   +                        +
blueberry, huckleberry
(Vaccinium spp.)

Genus or species           Bloom season           Color(s)

For Sunny Areas

Anise hyssop (giant        Mid- to late           Blue to purple
hyssop, Agastache spp.)    summer

Asters (Aster spp.)        Late summer to         Purple, violet-blue,
                           mid-fall               pink, red, white

Blazing-star, gayfeather   Early to mid-summer    Pinkish-purple
(Liatris spp.)             to mid- to late fall   to lavender,
                                                  sometimes white

Butterfly bush (summer     Mid-late summer to     White; pink;
lilac, Buddleia spp.)      early fall             purple

Goldenrods                 Mid- to late summer    Yellow
(Solidago spp.)            to early fall

Lavenders                  Summer to fall         Violet-green;
(Lavandula spp.)                                  purple-lavender

Mexican sunflower          Summer to fall         Orange-scarlet
Tithonia rotundifolia

Milkweeds (Asclepias       Summer to early        Orange, yellow,
spp, including butterfly   fall                   red, pink, white
weed, A. tuberosa)

Purple coneflower          Mid-summer to fall     Purple-pink w/dark
(Echinacea purpurea)                              center, also red,

Sunflowers                 Mid- to late summer    Yellow w/dark center
(Helianthus spp.)

Verbena                    Summer to fall         Purple; red; pink;

Zinnia (common zinnia,     Mid-summer to fall     Many available
Zinnia spp.)

For Sunny or Semi-Shad Areas (Note: some of the following plants
flower more abundantly in full sun)

Sedum (stonecrop,          Late summer to         Pink to rosy red,
Sedum spp.)                late fall              bronze in fall

Yarrow                     Early summer           White, yellow, pink
(Achillea spp.)            through fall

Black-eyed Susan           Mid-summer to          Bright yellow
(golden coneflower,        early fall             wldark center
Rudbeckia spp.)

Red columbine              Early spring to        Red
(Aquilegia canadense)      mid-summer

Spotted jewelweed          Mid-summer to          Orange
(spotted touch-me-not,     early fall
Impatiens campensis)

Bee balm (Oswego           Summer to fall         Red
tea, Monarda didyma)

Trumpet creeper            Early summer to        Orange-red
(Campsis radicans)         early fall

Trumpet (coral)            Mid-spring             Red
honeysuckle (Lonicera

Day lily                   Summer                 Orange; reddish;
(Hemerocallis spp.)                               yellow; off-white

Cosmos                     Late summer to         Magenta, pink, or
                           fall                   white w/yellow

Penstemon, scarlet         Late spring to         Scarlet variety
(Keckiella spp.)           mid-summer             attracts

Red buckeye                Late spring            Coral red

Salvias (Salvia spp.)      Some bloom starting    Blue; purple; red
                           fall, others in

Berry bushes:              Early to late          White
blueberry, huckleberry     spring
(Vaccinium spp.)

Genus or species           Growing conditions; other comments

For Sunny Areas

Anise hyssop (giant        Perennial; well-drained soil; mint family;
hyssop, Agastache spp.)    leaves used as herb

Asters (Aster spp.)        Perennial; many species and cultivars; food
                           source for both caterpillars and adult

Blazing-star, gayfeather   Perennial; soil preferences vary;
(Liatris spp.)             drought-tolerant; birds eat the seeds

Butterfly bush (summer     Deciduous shrub; tolerates poor soil;
lilac, Buddleia spp.)      semi-deciduous/evergreen shrub; exotic; can
                           be invasive--deadhead to prevent spreading

Goldenrods                 Perennial; well-drained soil; birds eat
(Solidago spp.)            the seeds; also attracts other beneficial

Lavenders                  Likes well-drained, alkaline soil; nice
(Lavandula spp.)           fragrance; mint family; exotic

Mexican sunflower          Can be annual or perennial; withstands heat
Tithonia rotundifolia      well; exotic

Milkweeds (Asclepias       Most species perennial; food source for
spp, including butterfly   both caterpillars and adult butterflies;
weed, A. tuberosa)         soil preferences vary

Purple coneflower          Perennial; prefers dry soil but tolerates
(Echinacea purpurea)       moist soil; fall seeds eaten by birds

Sunflowers                 Perennials are smaller; annuals provide
(Helianthus spp.)          seeds for birds and people; tolerates poor

Verbena                    Perennial; bees prefer non-red flowers,
                           butterflies prefer lavender-purple flowers

Zinnia (common zinnia,     Annual; mostly exotic, though the desert
Zinnia spp.)               and plains species are perennials native
                           to southwest US

For Sunny or Semi-Shad Areas (Note: some of the following plants
flower more abundantly in full sun)

Sedum (stonecrop,          Annual; well-drained soil
Sedum spp.)

Yarrow                     Perennial; both native (common yarrow) and
(Achillea spp.)            exotic species; may become invasive in
                           some regions/habitats; well-drained soil,
                           drought-tolerant; fern-like leaves

Black-eyed Susan           Perennial; medium to dry soil, tolerates
(golden coneflower,        sandy or poor soil; in hotter climates,
Rudbeckia spp.)            prefers light shade, otherwise full sun

Red columbine              Perennial; provides food when hummingbirds
(Aquilegia canadense)      start migrating north; prefers average,
                           well-drained or moist soil; non-doubled
                           columbines rood for bees; native

Spotted jewelweed          Annual but self-seeding; prefers light
(spotted touch-me-not,     shade; prefers acidic moist-wet soil;
Impatiens campensis)       native (The name is from the seed-pod's
                           forceful ejection of seeds if touched
                           when ripe.)

Bee balm (Oswego           Perennial; prefers moist, rich soil;
tea, Monarda didyma)       related to wild bergamot, M. fistulosa,
                           has similar characteristics but
                           pink/lavender flowers; mint family; native

Trumpet creeper            Perennial; long deciduous vines; provides
(Campsis radicans)         winter shelter for songbirds; native

Trumpet (coral)            Perennial; long woody vines; evergreen--
honeysuckle (Lonicera      semi-evergreen; moist, well-drained soil;
sempervirens)              native

Day lily                   Perennial; prefers well-drained, poor to
(Hemerocallis spp.)        average soil; good on steep banks for
                           erosion control

Cosmos                     Annual

Penstemon, scarlet         Prefers dry, sandy, or rocky soil; bush
(Keckiella spp.)           penstemon attracts some bees

Red buckeye                Deciduous shrub/small tree; tolerates dense
                           shade; foliage provides songbird cover;
                           moist soil

Salvias (Salvia spp.)      Hummingbirds prefer scarlet, bees prefer
                           blue or violet flowers.

Berry bushes:              Perennial vine or bush; home-grown berries;
blueberry, huckleberry     needs acidic soil
(Vaccinium spp.)


The table contains general information; check with your local
agricultural extension service, plant store or one of the
resources on page 27 for information specific to your area/habitat.

Likewise, much of the information in this table is general and
applies to the genus level--various species in the same genus
and even various cultivars within a species may have different
preferred growing conditions, colors, bloom seasons, etc.

Plants termed "native" may not be native to all regions. Check with
your local native plant society or one of the sources listed on page
27 to determine which species are native to your area.

Some plants attractive to butterflies can be grown in partial
shade, but butterflies prefer full sun.
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Author:Eisman, Robin
Publication:Natural Life
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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