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  • Valerie Just

My Pollinator Plants

My first two blogs were regarding two bee-friendly trees that are within my Hardiness Zone 5 - the Sourwood tree and the Black Locust tree. I haven't blogged about another tree, the American Linden tree, yet, but I will. Trees that provide a lot of nectar and pollen for our bees are very important to the welfare of our colonies, as well as the availability of honey for the general population. When you consider the size of a tree compared to the size of a shrub or a perennial plant, you will realize just how important it is to have bee-friendly trees within flying distance of your hives. Without the availability of bee-friendly trees, our honey crop would be substantially impacted. This blog will provide you information on bee-friendly, typically native, plants that are within Hardiness Zone 5 or below.

If you had an opportunity to read Our Journey, you may remember that I took Master Gardener classes from the Polk County Extension Office in 2014-2015. During that timeframe, I also enlarged my landscape area - probably doubled the amount of landscaping. My son, Adam, used a sod-cutter that I rented to cut out the design of the new landscape areas, as well as clear out the entire landscape area. I was so grateful for his help, as my husband was tired of my endless shenanigans (we continue to update/renovate our house, and we purchased it in 1996!). The day we worked on the landscaping, the weather was hot and humid, and I was hauling the cut sod over under a pine tree; my job was so much easier than the one Adam was doing, but I remember thinking I was going to collapse from the heat and humidity! I remember being thankful that he stuck with the chore at hand, for had I been in his shoes, I would probably have walked away. But, together, we got the job done.

My husband helped me put in metal edging - I needed the metal edging because I wanted curvature to the design. We planted some plants, and then bought about $400 worth of mulch to cut down my weeding chores. I now realize, after completing research on native bees, that my mulch is a detriment to native bee habitat. Guilt will probably force me to have a couple of areas with exposed soil, but for now, my mulch will stay put - maybe when I retire! I have so many bumble bees in my gardens this year - someone in my neighborhood must be providing good habitat for them!

As time passed, and I realized that we were at a point where we were going to try our hand at beekeeping, I started converting the landscaped areas into more native plantings. However, I wanted color all summer, so I maintained my beloved double-scoop cone-flowers as a border in front of the native plantings. I am writing today to relay to you the native plants that I have found are bee-friendly - these are plants that are blooming in early July - later on I will provide bee-friendly plants that bloom later in the summer and fall.

It is important to note, for most pollinators, that you should plant a larger mass planting of the pollinator-friendly flowers. A mass planting is at least 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep. Otherwise, they may just pass on the plant, unless the region is in a dearth (scarce or lack of) of blooming pollinator plants.

Native Prairie Pollinator-Friendly Plants

Agastache foeniculum, also known as Lavender Hyssop

As Defined by Prairie Nursery

The crushed leaves of Lavender Hyssop, also known as Anise Hyssop, have a fragrance of mint and licorice. The bright purple flowers and textured foliage make this an excellent choice for sunny prairies, open oak woodlands, and savannas. This pollinator favorite and butterfly magnet is an excellent addition in herb gardens, borders and perennial gardens. Agastache foeniculum is biennial, and self-sows readily on open soil. Likes full to partial sun - in full sun, the plant will grow as tall as 3 feet.

My Observations

The bumble bees and honey bees love my plantings, and I have a lot considering I'm in an urban garden. I planted many plants, because I observed my honey bees extensively using these plants last year. I took pictures this week, and created a slideshow - the honey bees have yet to start collecting on my plants this year, but the bloom has just started - hence, all of my pictures are those with bumble bees - look hard, and you should be able to find a bee - perhaps two pictures don't have a bumble bee.


I have had my Salvia plants for a number of years - prior to my Master Gardener classes and native landscaping work. The tags that had the scientific and common name are long gone - but I bought these plants from Lowe's as a perennial planting. I am guessing that May Night might be the name of the plants that I purchased. Both the Bumble Bees and the Honey Bees love these plants, and the awesome characteristic of these plants is the long bloom-period that they have - I'm guessing it is around 4 weeks.

If you don't take the time to split the plants every 3 years, they get really large, and will 'lay down' once they are in full bloom. You will see this habit in my pictures - but no matter, the plants are fulfilling pollinator needs. I plan on splitting my large plants this fall, and bringing the split plants into another landscape area. The repetition of the same plant lends itself to a cohesive look in your landscaping.

In the upcoming slideshow, you will see Bumble Bees and Honey Bees, even though the flowering is coming to an end on these plants. I have had luck in previous years trimming the plants back with a hedge clipper - the plants typically rebloom, although the bloom is much smaller than the initial bloom.

Liatris - Prairie Blazingstar

As Defined by Prairie Nursery

Liatris pycnostachya is truly majestic with its spectacular spike of tightly bunched lavender flowers. The name pycnostachya is from the Greek for "crowded" - an apt description of the densely crowed flowers which begin blooming at the top and work their way down the single stem. The deer resistant Prairie Blazingstar makes an excellent cut flower and holds its color well when dried. Butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and moths all visit this plant, including the rare Glorious Flower Moth which feeds on the flowers and seed capsules of this and other Liatris species.

My Observations

Native bees and honey bees like this perrenial flower. I have mine planted in the front yard landscape, which does not get a full six hours of sun that is typically required for many perrenials. I have it towards the back of my garden, as it needs support and typically grows at least four to five feet tall. My plantings just started blooming, so in the midwest, you can expect this plant to start blooming towards the end of June/early July. The long stalks start blooming from the top, and work their way down to the bottom of the stalk.

I took pictures this week, and the only bees on the stalks were the Bumble Bees. Last year, I saw honey bees on these flowers - the honey bees are still working on the Dutch Clover and Birdsfoot Trefoil right now! I've added a slideshow for your viewing pleasure - isn't the color stunning?

Purple Coneflower - Echinacea purpurea

As Defined by Prairie Nursery

This very popular native plant is perfect for both small gardens and large prairie meadows. Purple Coneflower blooms profusely for up to two months in mid to late summer and sometimes will re-bloom in the fall. The showy flowers are a favorite nectar source for butterflies, bees and myriad pollinators, including hummingbirds. Later in summer the large seedheads attract goldfinches and other birds.

Easy to grow, Purple Coneflower prefers full to partial sun and medium soil conditions. Growth is best in fertile loam, but it will tolerate clay or dryer conditions. It is somewhat drought resistant, but the entire plant may wilt if the soil becomes too dry in strong sunlight.

My Observations

I have these flowers scattered throughout all of my landscapes - and they do well everywhere, even in an area that is primarily shaded. In the shade, they get taller than normal, as they are seeking more sun, but it doesn't impact their blooming power. They grow about four - five feet tall, but have staunch stems that typically don't require any support. They need to be planted in the back of the garden due to their height.

They will reproduce, but are not an aggressive plant. If you don't want any more plants, you have plants to share with your neighbors and friends! I believe they reproduce by seeds sowed either by the wind or our birds. The native bees and honey bees love this plant - and the monarchs/butterflies, as well. Here are some pictures from my garden - they are in full bloom right now, but if you deadhead them, they will keep blooming through the fall.

Milkweed Plants

Common Milkweed - Asclepias syriaca

As Defined by Prairie Nursery

Common Milkweed is the plant most people think of when they hear the word “milkweed.” Asclepias syriaca thrives in almost any well-drained soil, and produces a profusion of lavender to pink flowers in midsummer. The sweet scented flowers attract and benefit a plethora of pollinators. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on plants in the Asclepias genus, exclusively – their caterpillars feast on the leaves. Of the milkweeds, this is one of the easiest and fastest to establish, as it spreads rapidly by rhizomes and grows readily from seed. Plant some today to help counter the increasing threat to the Monarch population. Planting Asclepias syriaca in large areas with other prairie grasses and flowers will help control spreading. Of note: Asclepias plants contain cardiac glycosides (organic compounds) which are absorbed by the monarch caterpillars – whose sole source of food is milkweed foliage – making them and the adult butterflies toxic to birds and other predators.

My Observations

At first, I found these plants hard to establish; however, they are now spreading throughout my landscape. They have a deep tuber root system, and will not do well if you try to transplant them. I have found that Monarchs will not lay eggs unless you have a strong population of milkweed. The way I interpret it is that they are good mothers, and want the best for their offspring - if the plant population isn't plentiful, and healthy, they move on to try and find another planting that will sustain the next generation.

They are in bloom right now, and when I am in my landscape, the sweet smell of this milkweed is hard to miss - I thoroughly enjoy spending time gardening when they are in bloom. Review the tables for pollinator-friendly plants in the link below - you will find that the common milkweed is a major plant source for honey bees, which makes it a great honey plant! I encourage you to plant a mass planting (3'X3' at least) in your urban garden, your rural garden, your prairie - you will make a difference for the Monarchs and the bees. Once you get them established, they will spread by seed in the fall and by rhizomes (spreads through the root system).

Rose Milkweed - Asclepias incarnata

As Defined by Prairie Moon Nursery

Asclepias incarnata, Rose Milkweed, is also commonly called Red Milkweed, Marsh Milkweed, or Swamp Milkweed. That lovely vanilla fragrance you detect coming from large rosy pink flowers possibly hosting several Monarch or Swallowtail butterflies is Rose Milkweed. This deer-resistant plant grows in moist to average soils, and blooms in July and August. Later, large pods form which will break open to reveal seeds that will float away in the wind. If growing Rose Milkweed from seed, try fall planting - or if planting in spring be sure to first moist-cold stratify the seeds for a month. Large numbers of Rose Milkweed can often be seen growing in wetland settings.

My Observations

This is a Monarch magnet. We have had Monarchs steadily coming to this plant for the last two weeks. We have a lady, probably 75 years old - she walks with ski poles probably to help her maintain her balance - that consistently walks in our neighborhood, and we have come to know her over the last year or so. She has a farmstead in Winterset, which is about 45 minutes southwest of Des Moines, and has a large conservation effort going on her farmstead. She also tests seeds for a local seed company; a company that plants native prairie flowers, and harvests the seeds for sale. She recommended this plant to me, and gave me some seeds a year or more ago. She really knows her native plants, and the plants that are pollinator-friendly. Trust me, you won't regret adding this plant to your garden.

I plan on sowing seeds this fall throughout my landscape. It is important to sow in the fall, as the seeds need a period of cold, moist stratification. If you miss sowing in the fall, you can also artificially put the seed through a cold stratification in your refrigerator.

Purple Milkweed - Asclepias purpurascens

Cultivation: The preference is partial sun and mesic conditions; this plant also tolerates light shade and full sun, as well as considerable variations in the moisture regime. Immature plants are inclined to wilt during a drought, and should be watered. The soil can consist of moisture-retaining loam or clay-loam. The plants make rapid growth during the late spring until they flower and form seedpods, then they gradually degenerate. It takes 3 years or more for a small transplant or seedling to reach flowering size. The leaves have tendency to turn yellow and curl in response to dry sunny conditions, or when they become old. Range & Habitat: The native Purple Milkweed is an occasional plant that is widely distributed in Illinois (see Distribution Map). However, it is uncommon or absent in some areas of NW, central, and east-central Illinois. Habitats include lower slopes of hill prairies, meadows in wooded areas, thickets and woodland borders, bluffs and open woodlands, oak savannas, glades, and roadsides. This plant usually occurs along prairie edges near wooded areas, rather than in open prairie. It is usually found in higher quality habitats.

Faunal Associations: The nectar of the flowers attracts long-tongued bees, butterflies, and skippers. To a lesser extent, green metallic bees and other Halictid bees may visit the flowers, but they are less effective at pollination. Another unusual visitor of the flowers is the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. Among the butterflies, such visitors as the Pipevine Swallowtail, Giant Swallowtail, American Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Clouded Sulfur, Eastern Tailed-Blue, Regal Fritillary, Great Spangled Fritillary, and many others have been reported. A group of oligophagous insects feed on milkweeds. They include caterpillars of the butterfly Danaus plexippes (Monarch); caterpillars of the moths Cycnia inopinatus (Unexpected Cycnia) and Cycnia tenera (Delicate Cycnia); the aphids Aphis asclepiadis, Aphis nerii, and Myzocallis asclepiadis; Lygaeus kalmii (Small Milkweed Bug) and Oncopeltus fasciatus (Large Milkweed Bug); and Tetraopes tetrophthalmus (Red Milkweed Beetle). Mammalian herbivores rarely consume Purple Milkweed and other milkweeds because of the bitter-tasting, toxic foliage, which contains cardiac glycosides.

Comments: The flowers of Purple Milkweed are quite attractive. This species is less aggressive than Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed), which it resembles somewhat in appearance. However, the flowers of Purple Milkweed are usually a deeper color of purple and more likely to occur in terminal umbels at the apex of the central stem, rather than as axillary umbels between the upper leaves. The seedpods of Purple Milkweed are smooth, while the seedpods of Common Milkweed have soft prickles. Purple Milkweed also resembles Asclepias rubra (Red Milkweed), but the horns on the flowers of the latter species are straight and about as tall as the hoods, while the horns of Purple Milkweed are shorter than the hoods and curve inward toward the reproductive column of the flowers.

My Observations

I do not have this plant in my landscape - YET. The lady that I talked about under Rose Milkweed has highly recommended this plant, and she has promised seeds this fall when her plants go to seed. I trust her knowledge - as I indicated, she has a large conservation effort on her farmstead. You can also purchase plants in the spring and seed anytime from Prairie Moon Nursery.

Here are some borrowed pictures from Illinois Wildflower:

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