No-Fail Plants to Attract Hummingbirds, Butterflies and Bees

Attract lively and valuable pollinators by adding these great plants to your garden.


By ANDRÉA MILLERCounty Lines • June, 2011


A year-round haven for pollinators is within reach, even for the novice gardener, if you choose the right plants. Read the story on the County Lines Website along with colorful images of the plants described here, or read the story below.


To attract pollinators to your garden — we’re focusing on hummingbirds, butterflies and bees here, although there are others, like moths, beetles and hoverflies — takes a little planning. You need a shallow, sand-filled butterfly bath (a bird bath, with very little water and a sandy bottom) and flowering plants of various shapes, sizes and colors. Selecting which plants to use from the dizzying array available in our area can stump a budding pollinator enthusiast. We’re here to help with a few basic principles about food, blooms, color and native plant choices to help make your garden a haven for these valuable and eye-catching pollinators.


First food.

Flowers provide two kinds of food for pollinators: nectar and pollen. Nectar, a carbohydrate, is good for butterflies and hummingbirds that burn through calories with their high metabolisms. Pollen, a protein, is good for bees and other pollinators that collect it to feed their young. For help determining which plants provide good sources of nectar and pollen, look for the National Wildlife Federation American Beauties plant labels at your favorite garden center. Or ask a pro.


Bloom features matter, too.

First, shape: small tubular flowers attract moths, bees and other pollinators with long proboscis. Longer tubular flowers attract hummingbirds. Butterflies can’t hover to forage, so they need mid-size flowers with open petals for landing.


Next, color.

Hummingbirds like red and orange; butterflies like white, yellow and orange. Bees see ultraviolet signals, which are invisible to the human eye, so make your choices based on other factors to attract bees.


Finally, remember to choose native plants.

They attract pollinators better than exotic species, because native plants make food better suited to our indigenous pollinators. So go native.


Now, here are some beautiful, no-fuss pollinator gems that you and the hummingbirds, butterflies and bees in your garden will love.


Garden Anchor

A hardy deciduous shrub, Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens, Annabelle) is an easy care, deer- and drought-resistant landscape anchor that attracts most pollinators. A profusion of stunning white blooms appear on upright stems over green foliage in July and age to pink in September. The blooms on Annabelle are so large that they may bend to the ground after a rain, so consider planting it next to a decorative fence for support. Great for groupings or as a specimen, it also provides winter interest. Plant in full to part sun, water until established, and prune in late winter.

Hint: Be judicious with planting shrubs and trees in a pollinator garden. Birds love to nest in them and will pick off insects, including butterflies and bees, coming to forage on pollinator blooms.

Also Try: Tulip poplars, red maples and other trees with small flowers.


Color Coordinator

Hummingbirds and bees can’t resist Bee Balm (Monarda ‘Panorama Red’), with its wealth of nectar and profusion of ultra-colorful, feathery one-inch blooms. With its spicy, minty scent, this bushy two-foot perennial blooms June through September — longer than other varieties. Each plant bears up to 20 long stems, perfect for the vase. Plant in loamy, well draining soil in full sun to partial shade. Shear spent flowers for a second bloom in August.

Hint:Propagates prolifically, so plant in beds bounded by a sidewalk or hardscaping. Some other pollinating plants are so invasive that you should not buy them. Avoid Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii), Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) and Japanese Wisteria (Wisteria floribunda).

Also Try: Other colors of bee balm — mix and match for a casual feel, or use complementary colors for visual impact.


Bang for The Buck

Catmint (Nepeta fassenii ‘Walker’s Low’) is a carefree, long blooming favorite that thrives in harsh conditions. Its striking blue-violet blooms appear above grey-green velvety foliage in May and continue through September. An aromatic plant that attracts most pollinators, it grows to two to three feet and is good in borders. Catmint tolerates salty air and dry soil, making it a great choice for a beach house. Plant in normal to sandy soil in a sunny location and don’t water after it’s established, except during drought. Shear spent flowers for a second bloom in August, leave foliage for winter interest, and cut back in early spring.

Also Try: For native choices that thrive in similar conditions, try the fall blooming Goldenrod (Solidago) and Aster (Aster oblongifolius ‘October Skies’), or the summer blooming Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium) and Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).


Hummingbird Haven

Yellow Wild Indigo(Baptisia sphaerocarpa ‘Screamin’ Yellow’) has a profuse display of tubular yellow-gold blooms in May and June that hummingbirds love. This drought-tolerant, deer- and pest-resistant perennial is a slow grower with deep green foliage that provides wonderful fall interest. Don’t cut back spent blooms and you’ll have nice one-to-two-inch pods with seeds rattling inside. Its compact, upright habit matures to two by three feet. This fun plant tolerates poor and sandy soil conditions and is a great border, specimen or ground cover. Plant in part to full sun in well-drained soil.

Also Try: Purple Smoke (Baptisia), perennial salvia, and if you’ve got frequently damp soil, Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis).


Bring On the Butterflies

Butterflies go crazy for Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosea), a bushy, two-foot perennial, prized by gardeners for its large, bright-orange blooms. Showy two-to-five-inch clusters atop dark green foliage appear in June and yield vibrant color through August. Low maintenance and drought resistant, milkweed was once called Pleurisy Root because it was chewed by Native Americans for lung inflammation. Insect and disease resistant, this plant is great for sunny borders or massing in drifts. Plant in full sun in well-drained soil, then leave alone once established.

Hint: For winter interest, don’t cut back milkweed. The dried stalks provide a place for pollinator eggs and larvae to overwinter and fluffy pods pop open to self-seed.

Also Try: Butterflies also love Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida or Rudbeckia triloba), Goldenrod Aster, Joe-Pye Weed and Coneflower.


Final Hint: Folks with allergies CAN have a pollinator garden. Look for strong nectar producers such as Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla), Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans), and native Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens).


Delaware Center for Horticulture Communications Coordinator Andréa Miller sat down with Parks Projects Coordinator Jacque Williamson for this story. A passionate proponent of pollinator gardens, Williamson, in partnership with the Wilmington Beautification Commission, is the driving force behind the gardens at Father Tucker Park on 9th & Lincoln Sts. and Stapler Park on 16th St., where you can see examples of these five great pollinators.