As Digital Content Editor Christine Alexander explains, pollinators play a vital role in our ecosystem and we should all be doing our part to support their populations:
“Pollinators play an integral part in the food chain that we simply cannot replicate for impact. They affect all living things, from the green growing variety on up to us bipeds. There’s no beating around the bush—pollinators = food. So whenever you see a happy little bee nosing around your flowers, tip your hat and say thank you very much for their service.”
Whether you have the space to create an expansive, pollinator-friendly landscape or just enough room to pot up a couple plants that are pollinator favorites, we can all do our part in helping these beneficial bugs. A good place to start is seeking out the plants that support the pollinators native to our area. To aid in that search, we asked regional experts to share some of the best pollinator plants for their region. Below, you’ll find four picks for the Northeast. To learn even more about gardening for pollinators, check out Gardening for Pollinators: Everything You Need to Know and Grow for a Gorgeous Pollinator Garden.
1. Swamp Milkweed
Name: Asclepias incarnata
Size: 3 to 4 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun; moist soil
Native range: Eastern United States
When most people think of planting milkweed for monarch butterflies, they imagine common milkweed (A. syriaca) with its big, rounded leaves. Although great in wild meadows, it always seems to be in the wrong spot in gardens, wandering around unpredictably, being hard to move, and tending to flop over pathways and neighboring plants. But there are several other native milkweeds that are just as tasty to monarch butterfly caterpillars and much easier to landscape with. One is the more refined native swamp milkweed. With pink (sometimes white) flowers, it is naturally found in moist places but seems equally happy in average to rich garden soil.
2. ‘Jeana’ Garden Phlox
Name: Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’
Size: 2 to 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun; moist, well-drained soil
Native range: Eastern and southern United States
As it has been a decorative mainstay for so long, we tend to forget that garden phlox is an eastern native plant. Hummingbird moths love it, especially some old white forms, methodically hovering at flower tube after flower tube to get the sweet nectar. But the surprise phlox in the pollinator garden is ‘Jeana’, a tall cultivar with pink, mid- to late-summer blooms. Although small flowered, ‘Jeana’ stands out among other phloxes as a swallowtail butterfly magnet, being especially attractive to the bright-yellow tiger swallowtails. Discovered in Tennessee among a patch of wild phlox, ‘Jeana’ was selected for its mildew resistance. At Sakonnet Garden, we find that copious summer watering of all phlox types keeps the leaves strong enough to deter most mildew outbreaks.
3. ‘Black Adder’ Agastache
Name: Agastache ‘Black Adder’
Size: 2 to 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun; rich, well-drained soil
Native range: North American hybrid
Two of the best bee-pollinator plants are the extremely long-blooming blue hybrid agastaches ‘Black Adder’ and ‘Blue Fortune’, the former beloved by bumblebees, and the later preferred by honeybees. Related to native dry-country pink and orange midwestern agastaches, which drown in the wet winters of the eastern United States, these hybrids are more moisture tolerant and in fact want composted, well-drained soil when growing. With licorice-scented aromatic foliage that can be eaten in an exotic salad, ‘Black Adder’ has dark, lavenderblue flower spikes that bloom and bloom, making it a valuable addition to the back border. Deadhead in late summer to prolong the show.
4. ‘Chocolate’ Snakeroot
Name: Ageratina altissima ‘Chocolate’ (syn. Eupatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’)
Size: 3 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide
Conditions: Partial shade; moist, rich soil
Native range: Eastern North America
Disguised as a burgundy-leaved ornamental all summer long, this perennial comes into its own as a valuable pollinator plant in October near the finale of the southbound monarch butterfly migration and as migrating painted lady populations are looking for nectar. On some autumn days I’ve seen dozens of butterflies cover big patches of ‘Chocolate’ snakeroot’s white fluffy flowers. Although young plants are slow to develop in size, they eventually become a robust border perennial.
John Gwynne is a landscape architect and co-creator of the Sakonnet Garden (sakonnetgarden.net) in Little Compton, Rhode Island.