12 Plants That Attract Pollinators (Plants They Love)

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Bee pollinating flower
The western honeybee (pictured) is the most globally significant pollinator species. JJ Harrison, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

No matter where one might live, the key to attracting pollinators is native plant diversity. While there are many kinds of pollinators, bees are often the first pollinator species we think of when asked about pollination. For example, the non-native western honeybee (Apis mellifera) is the most widely used and globally significant pollinator species, especially in agricultural environments. Still, there are at least 4,000 other pollinating species in North America.

Often, these native insects, particularly bees, are better pollinators of crops than the honeybee. In the United States, insects are the primary pollinators for most plants, but birds and small mammals also play a role in pollinating plants. Gardeners often grow eye-catching wildflowers to attract native bees to a garden. Once there, these native bees will happily take nectar from and pollinate other plants conveniently located nearby.

1) Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)

Bumblebee on milkweed flower
Bees and wasps provide most of the pollination for milkweed flowers. Brendan J. O’Reilly, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Milkweeds are an essential group of colorful perennial flowers in the family Asclepiadoideae. When injured, they release a poisonous, white sap, hence the common name “milkweed.” The genus Asclepias contains over 200 species, of which 73 are native to North America, and monarch butterflies commonly use 30. The monarch and a handful of other species co-evolved with milkweeds, and its larvae are therefore immune to its poisonous sap. This relationship ensures that few predators can consume milkweed, and the monarch is guaranteed a host plant for its offspring.

Interestingly, monarchs are inefficient pollinators of milkweeds, with bees and wasps providing most of the milkweed’s pollination. To grow milkweed, plant seeds in well-draining soil at a depth of about 0.25 inches (0.6 cm) in a location with plenty of sun and space. In about a week, milkweed seedlings should germinate.

2) Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Bee on eastern redbud
The eastern redbud is one of the first plants that flowers during the growing season. Dan Keck from Ohio, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the prettiest trees in eastern North America is the eastern redbud, with its bountiful springtime blooms. From February to April, eastern redbuds are easy to spot as the tree branches are covered in vibrant purple, edible flowers. They are among the first plants to flower during the growing season and are popular amongst bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

Eastern redbuds grow in areas with plenty of sun and can tolerate some shade. They also accept various soil conditions but prefer moist, well-draining soil. Later in the growing season, eastern redbuds develop legume-like seed pods that are also edible.

3) Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)

Bee on giant goldenrod flower
Goldenrod plants produce attractive yellow blooms that draw in pollinators. Syrio, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The family Asteraceae is a massive group of flowering plants with over 32,000 species. The group possesses composite flowers, usually in a disk formation with many petals derived from modified leaves. One genus within this group, Solidago, contains the goldenrods, a diverse group of flowers usually with a weedy appearance and beautiful yellow blooms.

Goldenrods are very common throughout North America. They come in many sizes and forms, from the giant goldenrod (S. gigantea) with its plumelike growth pattern and purple stems to the Canadian goldenrod (S. canadensis), a smaller relative with fuzzy stems.

4) Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Bee on black-eyed Susan flower
Black-eyed Susan is an important source of nectar for many native pollinator species. Dcoetzee, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Black-eyed Susans are one of the most common flowering plants in North America. They have characteristic yellow blooms with large, brown centers. After the flowering season, the petals wither and leave behind a brown center full of seeds. The black-eyed Susan is a host plant for the silvery checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis) and bordered patch (Chlosyne lacinia) butterflies. In addition, they provide nectar for many other native pollinators. Black-eyed Susans are most commonly found in open grassy areas where they can get plenty of sun, but they are also hardy in the home garden.

5) Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella)

Bee pollinating Indian blanket flower
Indian blanket has beautiful red and yellow flowers and grows best in full sun. Xavier Caré / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Indian blanket is another Aster family member that produces beautiful red and orange flowers. They are native to the southern United States but can be found as far north as Michigan, possibly into Canada. They are hardy flowers that grow in various conditions, although they do best in well-draining, sandy soil. Multiple caterpillar species feed on Indian blankets, attracting many bees and pollinators. They form robust shrubs covered in flowers that “blanket” the ground. They prefer areas with full sun and are very tolerant to drought.

6) Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Bumblebee on purple coneflower
You should plant purple coneflower in an area with full sun for best results. JaqNotJill, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Purple coneflowers are another Aster species with purple flowers and petals that droop as the flower ages. There are many different coneflower cultivars with varying colors of flowers, including white, pink, and yellow. Generally, this species blooms once a year in the summer but may also produce blooms in the fall, depending on the climate. Purple coneflower blooms last for up to two months. To grow purple coneflowers in the home garden, one should plant them in full sun.

While they can survive in areas with shade, the fullest blooms will be achieved in locations with full sun. Purple coneflowers grow quickly, and after the flowerheads have been spent, the remaining seeds attract songbirds, like the American goldfinch (Spinus tristis), which eat them and are a colorful sight in the home garden. Interestingly, specially prepared Echinacea roots are used as an herbal remedy to boost the immune system.

7) Beebalms (Monarda spp.)

Hummingbird sipping nectar from beebalm flower
Similar to other plants that attract pollinators, beebalm should be planted in direct sun. © Joe Schneid, Louisville, Kentucky, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Beebalms belong to a relatively small genus in the mint family (Lamiaceae). This family has plants with an opposite leaf orientation, meaning the leaves are paired and occur on each side of the stem directly across from one another. The genus Monarda contains 22 species native to North America and can be found throughout the continent.

Beebalms develop complex flowers that come in white, purple, red, and pink. In addition to attracting pollinators to the garden, plants in the Monarda genus are used in herbal medicines due to their analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. Beebalms are best planted in the spring or fall in acidic soils. Like many other pollinator-friendly plants, bee balms require full sun.

8) Narrowleaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium)

Bee on narrowleaf mountain mint
Narrowleaf mountain mint grows the best in areas with well-drained soil and sun. peganum from Henfield, England, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Another type of plant that attracts various pollinators are mountain mints. In the same family as the bee balms (Lamiaceae), the Pycnanthemums have an opposite leaf pattern. Another trait that defines the mint family is its characteristic scent, caused by pulegone, released when the leaves and their four-sided stems are crushed.

Typically, mountain mints develop flowers along the entire flowering stem creating long strands of tiny purple flowers, whereas bee balms develop flowers at the end of their stems. Mountain mints bloom in the summer and thrive in sunny areas with well-drained soils.

9) Ironweeds (Vernonia spp.)

Giant ironweed in bloom
The giant ironweed (pictured) is distributed across most of the eastern US and some parts of Canada. Cephas, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ironweeds are members of the aster family (Asteraceae) with unusual flowers that have many long, purple “disk-flowers” at the end of each dark-colored stem. They come in many shapes and sizes, but their flower color is usually purple or yellow flowers. Ironweeds are naturally found in grasslands, wooded areas, and savannas and can tolerate moist or dry soils.

The giant ironweed (V. gigantea) is the largest ironweed species, able to grow up to 9.8 ft (3 m) tall, with purple flowers and a distribution that covers most of the eastern United States and parts of Canada. There are many more species of ironweed in the United States.

10) Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)

Bees on sunflower
Sunflowers need to be planted at the right time of the year for optimal growth. daryl_mitchell from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The sunflower is one of the most widely recognized members of the Asteraceae family. This genus contains about 70 species, including the ones regularly consumed by humans. Any local pollinators cannot miss their large, yellow flowers, and if grown properly, sunflowers will provide backyard gardeners with delicious seeds at the end of the growing season.

Sunflowers must be planted in areas with full sun. Additionally, they should be planted at the appropriate time of year. Planting too early may leave sunflowers vulnerable to frost, and planting too late may inhibit seed development. In addition to plenty of sun, sunflowers require water and well-drained soils.

11) Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

Rattlesnake master flower heads
The rattlesnake master is a great choice for a beginner gardener as it’s relatively low-maintenance. Sten Porse, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most important North American native herbs is the rattlesnake master. Its native range includes most of the eastern United States and it is closely related to carrots and parsley. The rattlesnake master produces round, pinecone-like flowers which attract native bees, beetles, and butterflies. Growing this species is easy because the rattlesnake master is drought-tolerant and thrives in various soil types, from clay to rocky soils. The species name yuccifolium is derived from the plant’s solid and fibrous leaves­–similar to the yucca (Yucca aloifolia)–which Native Americans used to make shoes and baskets.

12) Three leaf sumac (Rhus trilobata)

Three leaf sumac fruits
Three leaf sumac produces edible fruits that are consumed by songbirds and squirrels. Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While most of the species on this list are herbaceous flowering plants, the three-leaf sumac, or skunkbush, is a woody species that develops dense flowers and edible fruits. This species can be found in the western United States, Mexico, and Canada. They can be bought from nurseries and planted in a home garden in well-drained, sandy soils. Three leaf sumac flowers typically attract bees, whereas their fruit attracts songbirds and squirrels. The plant itself is host to the stunning Luna moth.

Native Bees vs. Non-Native Bees vs. Invasive Bees

Africanized bee on flower
Some bee species, such as this Africanized bee, are considered invasive due to their ability to cause harm to people and/or the environment. Jose Manuel Podlech from Santiago, Chile, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The western honeybee hails from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East and has been selectively bred for thousands of years to produce honey, pollinate crops, and thrive in urban environments where hive pests are common. Since they originate from the Old World, the western honeybee is not native to North America and was introduced in the 17th century to pollinate crops imported from Europe. While they are non-native, they are not considered invasive because bees are incredibly beneficial to society as they are responsible for the production of many fruits, vegetables, and nuts that are staples in the North American diet.

However, some strains, like the Africanized honeybee (A. m. scutella), introduced from Africa, tend to be less docile than their agriculturally essential cousins. These strains can be considered invasive because they pose a danger to people and the environment.

Why Is It Important to Plant Indigenous Flowers?

Common buckthorn
Although some plants, such as this common buckthorn, may be good for non-native bees, they can have negative impacts on native ecosystems in North America. Ryan Hodnett, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, the presence of non-native honeybees introduces an interesting dilemma for Americans who want to attract pollinators to their yard as certain plants. For example, introduced species like the Chinese tallow tree (Triadica sebifera), provide a bountiful food source for western honeybees yet are themselves invasive and damage ecosystems. Therefore, it is essential to understand the difference between non-native and native species when considering a pollinator garden, as non-native plant species can quickly overrun a garden and escape into the environment, competing with and replacing native species.

Chinese tallow trees, for example, reduce biodiversity in introduced ecosystems, alter natural cycles (i.e., fire & nutrients) within an ecosystem, and fail to provide the same quality forage or shelter as native North American oaks, hickories, or pine trees. Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), and European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) are a few other plant species that are beneficial to non-native honeybees but have negative impacts on native North American ecosystems.

While it may seem like a good idea to plant flowers that western honeybees thrive on, invasive plants reduce the overall biodiversity of an ecosystem and take resources from plants that are more beneficial to native pollinators. Co-evolution between pollinators and plants that need pollinating is vital to maintaining healthy relationships between plants and pollinators. Native pollinators, which did not evolve in the presence of most invasive species, may not know how to use these plants to get food and therefore have less food in ecosystems that are taken over by invasive species.

Additionally, invasive plants reduce populations of plants that native pollinators can use. Finally, invasive plants can help populations of invasive species, which may have evolved with invasive plants and can effectively use this resource, and lead to an “invasional meltdown,” where two invasive species have a beneficial relationship that allows them to be successful in introduced environments.

Keyla P
About the author

Keyla P

I have a bachelor’s degree in Natural Resources focusing on Wildlife Ecology and a minor in Entomology. I am also an award-winning student researcher with five years of experience with wildlife-related research.

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