Gardening

Our top 10 favorite pollinator plants for the summer garden

Our top 10 favorite pollinator plants for the summer garden thumbnail

We’re weirdos who love insects (most of them, at least). As we’ve written about elsewhere, 95% of insects are beneficial or benign (not bad guys), and there are 400,000,000 insects on a single acre of healthy land (that’s about 400 pounds of insects)

Rather than trying to kill all these creatures – friend and foe alike – we think it makes more sense to get to know them a little better, and put them to work for you in your garden. Doing so means you’ll have predatory insects to help control your pest insects and plenty of pollinators around to help your garden produce more food.

If you want to have an abundance of good insects (pollinators and predators) around, perhaps the single best thing you can do is provide a wide diversity of flowering plants that are never treated with pesticides.

  • Bonus points if those flowering plants are native, since those plants will likely need less maintenance from you and are also likely to be host plants for species of native pollinators due to relationships that span thousands of years.
  • More bonus points if those flowering plants also produce edible parts for you!

Top 10 Pollinator Plants From Our Summer Garden 

We’ve grown a LOT of flowering plants over the years in our Greenville, SC (Zone 7B) garden. While each region and growing zone will have different native flower species, some flowers can be grown virtually anywhere.

It was quite hard to narrow down our list of favorite summer pollinator plants to just ten, but here’s the one’s we’ve settled on along with photos of them growing in our garden:

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1. Passionfruit (Passiflora incarnata)

Native bees, especially carpenter and bumble bees, LOVE passion flowers.

Native bees, especially carpenter and bumble bees, LOVE passion flowers.

  • Native range: Eastern US
  • Edible: Delicious sweet, tangy fruit. Leaves and flowers are used to make medicinal teas and extracts. We like growing these on trellises and fences since they’re vigorous climbers (one has just reached the second story of our back porch).

2. Common Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus)

We always see piles of small native bees on our sunflowers.

We always see piles of small native bees on our sunflowers

  • Native range: Mostly North America but some subspecies are native to South America as well.
  • Edible: Edible seeds are packed full of healthy fats and protein.

3. Zinnias (Zinnia elegans)

Zinnias come in a huge range of colors and sizes. We like growing dwarf zinnias as a low-growing spiller on the front of beds and the regular zinnias, whose flower stalks can reach 4' tall, to fill in further back inside our beds.

Zinnias come in a huge range of colors and sizes. We like growing dwarf zinnias as a low-growing spiller on the front of beds and the regular zinnias, whose flower stalks can reach 4′ tall, to fill in further back inside our beds.

  • Native range: Southwestern US to South America
  • Edible: Zinnia flower petals are edible, and taste somewhat similar to marigolds.

4. Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)

Our neighbor's honeybees foraging our milk thistle. Milk thistle seeds make an absolutely delicious medicinal tea.

Our neighbor’s honeybees foraging our milk thistle. Milk thistle seeds make an absolutely delicious medicinal tea.

    • Native range: Southern Europe and Asia
    • Edible: The roots are edible. The young plants (stems and leaves) are also edible and eaten cooked, but we prefer to let the plants mature so we can harvest their seeds. We use the ground seeds to make perhaps our favorite medicinal tea, which contains silymarin, a compound that stimulates regeneration of liver cells and improves liver function. A veterinary pharmacist I spoke with used high quality milk thistle supplements to reverse liver failure in birds she treated – pretty amazing! You can get really high quality, pharmaceutical grade milk thistle extract in pill form here or buy seeds to grow your own milk thistle here.

5. Monarda, aka Bee Balm and Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly enjoying a sip of Monarda nectar.

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly enjoying a sip of Monarda nectar.

  • Native range: Most of North America
  • Edible: Flowers and leaves are used to make teas (tastes spicy, almost like oregano). Long history of medicinal use by Native Americans to treat a wide range of ailments. Fun fact: Monarda is the natural source of thymol, the antiseptic used in mouthwash. You can buy Monarda seeds here.

6. Squash – various types of summer/winter squash and pumpkins

Cucurbita argyrosperma, C. ficifolia, C. maxima, C. moschata, and C. pepo

We have yet to look into a squash blossom in the morning and NOT see a bee foraging. Squash flowers are also a very good edible that we enjoy dipped in pancake batter and pan-fried for breakfast. (Use the male flowers not the females, so you don't reduce your fruit harvest.)

Squash blossoms usually have at least 2-3 bees foraging inside them at the same time in the morning in our garden. Squash flowers are also a very good edible that we enjoy dipped in pancake batter and pan-fried for breakfast. (Use the male flowers not the females, so you don’t reduce your fruit harvest.)

  • Native range: North, Central, and South America
  • Edible: Every part of the plant is edible: leaves, flowers, fruit, and seeds (read how to use them all here). One of the most nutritionally valuable plants to Native American societies, and also today.

7. Echinacea

An echinacea flower being visited by a Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly (left) and a Painted Lady butterfly (right).

An echinacea flower being visited by a Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly (left) and a Painted Lady butterfly (right).

  • Native range: Eastern and central North America
  • Edible: Echinacea isn’t a food per se, but the flowers and roots have been used medicinally by Native Americans for thousands of years to treat coughs, sore throats, headaches, and as a pain medication.

8. Elderberries

A honeybee about to land on a cluster of elderflowers.

A honeybee about to land on a cluster of elderflowers.

  • Native range: virtually all temperate regions around the globe, including in the US.
  • Edible: The leaves and stems of the plant are poisonous but the flowers and fruit are one of our absolute favorite edibles. We make a fermented sparkling cordial with the flowers that is out-of-this-world delicious, and we make wine, syrup, and ferments with the fruit as well.  The elderberry syrup we make is comparable to the expensive stuff you can buy at the store that is sold as a cold and flu medicine (yes, it’s scientifically proven to be effective).

9. Cilantro/Coriander 

Syrphid fly pollinating cilantro flowers. Cilantro leaves are a great herb (although a small percentage of people dislike it) as are its seeds, which are sold under the name

Syrphid fly pollinating cilantro flowers. Cilantro leaves are a great herb (although a small percentage of people dislike it) as are its seeds, which are sold under the name “coriander.”

  • Native range: southern Europe
  • Edible: Leaves, flowers, and seeds are all edible. Cilantro is in the Apiaceae family, along with carrots, celery, dill, parsnip and others – all of which produce clusters of white flowers beloved by pollinators. Despite its reputation as a summer food popular in Latin American cuisine, cilantro actually prefers cool/cold weather and goes to bolt when the temps get hot (we’ve had it survive single digit temps uncovered in the winter). Spring sown cilantro seeds/coriander will go to bolt and produce seeds in early summer in our area. 

10. Mexican Primrose (Oenothera speciosa)

A row of Mexican primrose growing on the front of one of our beds. This plant can quickly take over a bed, so pulling and composting unwanted patches can help keep it under control.

A row of Mexican primrose growing on the front of one of our beds. This plant can quickly take over a bed, so pulling and composting unwanted patches can help keep it under control.

  • Native Range: Southern US and northern Mexico. 
  • Edible: The leaves can be eaten like lettuce in the spring before the plants go to flower/seed, and the flowers make a nice edible too.

These are our ten favorite summer garden flowers for pollinators, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other awesome, edible and medicinal pollinator-friendly plants that we left off this list that you can use in your garden (natives and non-natives alike). Of course, we can’t have an article like this without recommending that you grow species of milkweed that are native to your region in order to help Monarch butterflies avoid extinction.

What is your favorite pollinator plant in your summer garden? Let us know in the comments!

KIGI,


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Top-10 edible and medicinal pollinator-friendly plants for the summer garden. -TyrantFarms.com

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