Jun 7th, 2018

Pollinator Plantings

As you move down the Main Garden Path this summer, you’ll notice the rainbow of flowers — each one part of a group of pollinator plantings–stretching at its side. You’ll see a variety of specimens, including annuals, perennials, and native plants. These blooms aren’t just attractive to the eye, but help to attract useful pollinators to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

Pollinator plantings -- a pollinator garden on the Main Garden Path, with small purple flowers in the foreground and red flowers in the background.

The start of the Main Garden Walkway features pollinator plantings — purple and red flowers with sweet nectar, a favorite of hummingbirds.

The garden’s design and coloration are meant to draw in butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, and other important pollinators with bold foliage color, interesting textural contrast, and plants that bloom heavily throughout the season.  We installed the plants in large groupings, creating the visual impact to attract not only passing visitors but the pollinators who fly overhead.

Senior Horticulturalist Shannon Smith designed the layout with the knowledge that these pollinators view the world differently than human eyes. While our field of vision may see a simple red flower, to a bee the flower will appear blue, with bright yellow streaks directing towards the pollen. Smith compared that color to “a runway strip,” guiding a pollinator to the center of a pollen-rich flower. This means that the form of a flower is important, too. As for their favorite shades, butterflies especially love yellows, oranges, reds, and pinks, while hummingbirds prefer blues and reds. Because bees can’t see red, they prefer violets, as well as yellows and blues.

Pollinator Plantings

The appeal of different colors and forms to wildlife meant that Smith needed to incorporate a variety of plants. Each bed contains food for butterfly larva, such as parsley, milkweed or violets, as well as nectar for the adults. Providing food for the larva is key to a garden designed to support wildlife. Those plants will get eaten, so Smith layered the edible host plants within groupings of nectar plants so the larva will have shelter and bare areas will not remain when this occurs.

The garden also includes a mix of different straight species and hybrids, as plant hybridization can impact specimens’ ability to act as a food source to pollinators. Smith pointed out that “the way a plant is hybridized to make people happy can limit access to nectar and reduce pollen production.” Altering factors like size, color, or single versus double blooms can all influence a pollinator’s access. Smith hopes the garden will be an opportunity for herself and visitors to see firsthand which plants pollinators are attracted to, along with which hybrids they seem to avoid.

Drawing the most visual appeal from these plants requires the design of a tightly plotted structure. Smith began on paper, taking measurements of not only the square footage of each plant bed but the individual plants themselves. These calculations were useful in dealing with surprise setbacks of the design process. At one point, the plants she received were larger than the smaller pots she requested. This wasn’t a permanent obstacle, though–“there’s a lot of room for things to get moved around,” she said.

Smith also created colored sketches of how the garden would look from above.  The end result: beds designed for specific pollinators. Each bed contains plants for all pollinators, but the red and blue bell-shaped flowers at the entrance attract mainly hummingbirds and bees, while further down, the yellow-orange plants sit for butterflies to find. By counting each individual plant and measuring its difference from her expectations, Smith was able to carry out this eye-catching design, even with the mismatch of sizes.

Three images are laid out in a row. The leftmost image is of hand-drawn shapes that represent the pollinator garden plots, with the angle sizes written within each one. The center image is of the same plots filled in with hand-sketched color, including orange, yellow, and pink. The rightmost image shows yellow and pink flowers in the finished pollinator garden outside.

From left to right: Smith’s measurements of the garden beds; the colored sketches of the plots; and the finished garden.

The new garden walkway arrives just in time for the Garden’s celebration of National Pollinator Week, June 18 – 24, 2018. There, visitors will be able to learn more through events like a Matt Lively mural installation and Host of Sparrows Aerial Circus show (think human blue morpho butterflies!) But why focus on pollinators?

“Everything in nature is interconnected,” Smith said. “The relationship between plants and pollinators is one of the primary relationships within plant communities. …When we say ‘a plant community,’ we mean all the plants that naturally evolved within an area and the wildlife that coevolved with them. Those spaces are rapidly disappearing, and the space that is left is our yards. So it’s up to us to recreate those spaces the best we can.”

After seeing the mix of plant options here and all the pollinators we are attracting, we hope you are inspired to start a pollinator garden in your own backyard. You could focus on nectar plants, host plants, or both, and help your area’s native butterfly population by doing so. As a botanical garden, we’re thrilled to be able to show you how easy it is to do so and how beautiful it looks too. See the list below for what plants we chose and why.

We know the bees and butterflies will like these plantings, but we’d love to hear what you think of them too!

Common Name Scientific Name Cultivar Series / Trademark Native to Nectar/ Host Benefit to:
Canna Canna Australia’ N Hummingbirds
Bee Balm Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Cline’ moist woods & along bottomland, streambanks from Maine to Minnesota south to Missouri & Georgia. N butterflies, Hummingbirds
White clover Trifolium repens Europe N Bees
Tall verbena Verbena bonariensis ‘Buenos Aires’ South America Specific epithet means of Buenos Aires, Argentina. N Butterflies
Pentas Pentas lanceolata (Forssk.) Deflers Butterfly Red N Butterflies, Swallowtails, Hummingbirds
Anise-Scented Sage Salvia microphyllia x greggi ‘Eggben005’ Heatwave ™  Blaze N Butterflies, Hummingbirds
Common Blue Violet Viola soraria Eastern North America H, N Frittilary Butterflies, Bees
Jacob’s coat Acalypha wilkesiana Pacific Islands
Purple Giant Hyssop Agastache rugosa  ‘Golden Jubilee’ China, Laos, Vietnam, Japan, Korea-wet grasslands, stream banks N Bees, Butterflies
Switch Grass Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ North America except west coast states nesting/seeds Birds, Nesting- ground bees
Anise-scented Sage Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ native to Brazil, Paraguay, and northern Argentina. N Butterflies, Hummingbirds
Scarlet Sage Salvia Splendens ‘Lighthouse Red’ Brazil N Birds, Hummingbirds, Butterflies
Scarlet Sage Salvia Splendens ‘Vista Red’ Brazil N Birds, Hummingbirds, butterflies
Giant Hyssop Agastache ‘Black Adder’ hybrid n Butterflies, Bees
Parsley Petroselinum crispum Southern Europe H Black Swallowtails
Common Milkweed Asclepias syriaca Eastern North America H, N Monarch Butterflies
Cosmos Cosmos bipinnatus Cav. Apollo Mix Mexico/ Southern U.S. N Butterflies
Floss Flower Ageratum houstonianum  ‘Hawaii Blue’ Strait species from Mexico N Butterflies
Floss Flower Ageratum houstonianum ‘Blue Horizon’ Strait species from Mexico N Butterflies
Blue  globe Thistle Echinops bannaticus ‘Blue Glow’ southeastern Europe N
Lantana Lantana camera ‘Balucyell’ Landmark™ Yellow Tropical America N Butterflies, Bees
Black-Eyed Susan Rudbeckia hirta ‘Indian Summer’ Strait species- Central U.S. N Butterflies,Bees
Pentas Pentas lanceolata (Forssk.) Deflers Butterfly Deep Rose Butterflies, Swallowtails, Hummingbirds
Brown-Eyed Susan Rudbeckia triloba Central-Eastern United States
giant hyssop Agastache urticifolia ‘Blue Boa’ N Bees, Hummingbirds, Butterflies
Hummingbird Mint Agastache rupestris ‘Rosie Posie’ Tropical N Hummingbirds
Mexican Feathergrass Nassella tenuissima Southwestern North American and Southern South America 0
Zinnia Zinnia ‘Profusion Yellow’ Profusion cross of Elegans and Angustifolia- both native to Mexico H Butterflies
Lantana Lantana camera ‘Balucimyel’ Lucky ™  Yellow Tropical America N Butterflies, Bees
Rose Moss Portulaca grandiflora Happy Hour™ Lemon Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay N Bees, Butterflies
French Marigold Tagetes patula  ‘Durango Yellow’ Durango® N Bees, Butterflies
Rose Moss Portulaca grandiflora Happy Hour™ mixture Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay
Canna Canna ‘Cannova Bronze Orange’ Cannova®  series N Hummingbirds
Yellow Bells Tecoma stans West Indies, Florida, Mexico to South America -broadleaf evergreen N Butterflies, Hummingbirds
Butterfly Weed Asclepias tuberosa Eastern and southern United States H,N Monarch Butterflies
Hardy Hibiscus Hibiscus ‘Kopper King’ U.S. N Butterflies, Hummingbirds

Claire Jeantheau, the summer Public Relations/Marketing Intern at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, is excited to use her background in writing and social media to tell the stories of the green spaces here she loves. She currently studies classics and social entrepreneurship at Dickinson College.

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