When we think about plants we don’t often think about what family it belongs to. There is several families of plants that pollinators really love. I’m going to talk about two of them.
The first family is the Asteraceae Family sometimes referred to as the Aster, Daisy, Composite, or Sunflower family. This is the largest family of plants. Over 23,000 species are known in this family.
When you look at a daisy flower in your garden, look closely. What may seem like petals with a solid center is actually a cluster of tiny flowers referred to as florets in the center of the flower. Pollinators love these because the florets are small and the nectar is readily available and no long tongue is needed to reach the sugary reward. This is why you will see a wide variety of insects pollinating the daisy family. The pollen on the other hand is exposed on the surface of the flower and a small percentage of plants in this family can actually be wind pollinated. Solidago (Goldenrods) are an example of a flower that can be wind or insect pollinated. Many people associate Goldenrods with allergies because their wind pollen capabilities but the allergies are primarily from ragweed which is also in the Asteraceae family and blooms at the same time as Goldenrods.
Off the top of your head you could probably name a few plants in this huge family of plants like Ageratum, Asters, Cosmos, Chrysanthemums, Coneflowers, Marigolds, Rudbeckia, and Sunflowers. Maybe a little less known of this family is Artichoke, Lettuce, and Dandelion. Check out the diversity of pollinators in this family next time you are in your garden. Sunflowers alone can have many visitors such as sweat bees, long horned bees, monarchs, bumble bees, and sunflower chimney bees. Want to know how to recognize what species of bee you see? Join up with the Great Sunflower Project and print out their Bee Identification Cards! The Great Sunflower Project is the largest citizen science project focused on pollinators with over 10,000 members. Now that’s a big family!
The next Family of good pollinator plants is the Lamiaceae Family with over 7,000 species of plants. This is commonly know as the mint family. A good way to identify plants in the mint family is their square stems, but as the saying goes: “All mints have square stems, but not all square stems are mints.” A good familiar example is Verbena with square stems but in the Verbeniaceae Family. Another cool way to identify a mint family member is that most of them are annual or perennial herbs. These plants are aromatic and used as oils, medicine, perfumes, beverages, and cooking. That being said, I bet a few mint family members came to mind such as: Basil, Oregano, Thyme, Lavender, Rosemary and last but not least Mint. Less commonly known in the mint family is Salvias.
My favorite part of Salvias is the flower has a lever mechanism. When the pollinator enters the flower a lever mechanism drops the stamens with the pollen on to their head or body to carry to the next flower for cross pollination. Some larger bees like bumble bees can’t fit in the flower so they make a slit in the side and rob the nectar bypassing the pollen lever. We call them nectar robbers. Mountain Mint in the genus Pycnanthemum is loved by many pollinators and by far is the most visited Mint family plant in my landscape. I have this near my walkway and I have yet to pass by it without pausing and admiring the life being sustained on those flowers. Some flowers in the mint family are Agastache, Ajuga, Bee Balm, Lambs Ears, Lavender, Nepeta, and Phlomis.
If you want to be sure to provide for pollinators you will be successful if you pick plants from these two families. Think about long season of bloom when you choose. In the mint family many of your thymes and Nepetas bloom very early spring and mountain mint blooms in late summer. In the daisy family your marigolds and ageratum are early and many asters, goldenrods, rudbeckia and sunflowers later in summer. Keep them fed and they will keep you fed.