Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
September, 2008
Regional Report

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Two bees gather pollen while collecting nectar from a summersweet flower.

Planting for Pollinators

What do butterflies, bats, birds, bees, beetles, moths, flies, and hummingbirds have in common with squashes, cherries, tomatoes, and apples? One of every three mouthfuls of food we eat is thanks to a pollinator, observed Louise Schaefer, Pennsylvania certified horticulturist. Along with Sue Tantsits, Schaefer owns Edge of the Woods Native Plants Nursery in Orefield, Pennsylvania.

"Most plants -- 80 percent -- globally are pollinated by beetles. For example, squash have big flowers beetles can climb in and out of," said Schaefer. "The bee, ant, beetle go into the flower. Most times the pollinator is going after nectar it uses for nutrition. In the process of getting nectar, it brushes off the pollen and carries that pollen away with it. The insect has sticky legs, a furry body the pollen adheres to. At the next flower, it does the same thing and also leaves pollen behind which fertilizes the flower."

Looking at the big picture, pollination is vital to the earth's survival as well as our survival. According to the Pollinator Partnership, "Pollinators are essential to the fibers we use, the medicines that keep us healthy, and more than half the world's diet of fats and oils."

Natives Benefit Natives
We can help save native pollinators by using wild type, straight plant species, said Schaefer. Native and species plants have markings that insects key into, such as odor or ultraviolet nectar guides on flower petals that lead the insects to the nectar and pollen. Penstemon flowers have flat portions that serve as landing pads.

Often hybrid flowers manipulated to appeal to us for unique color, double petals, or unusual petal form don't have those markings. That means native pollinators just don't see them. "Those flowers are invisible to bees, butterflies, and beetles so they lose that plant as a source of support," Schaefer explained .

Insects also need to visit the plant when the pollen is ready and the plant is receptive to pollination. "Some plants have a very narrow window, 3 to 5 days for example, when they can be pollinated, and [they have] very specific insect pollinators," said Schaefer. "If that insect is not around, the plant doesn't get pollinated."

Spring ephemerals like columbine and Virginia bluebells bloom for a short time so they have a limited pollination window. Each Franklinia tree flower or magnolia flower is open only briefly for pollination. On the other hand, summer phlox blooms and is pollinated for six weeks. Unfortunately, invasive purple loosestrife is receptive all summer long, which contributes to its invasiveness, noted Tantsits.

In addition to food, pollinators need water and good habitat, and gardeners can supply all three. A birdbath, rocks with indentations that collect water, little puddles here and there, all are used by pollinators. Habitat is leaf litter, where insects can burrow, hide, and find cool protection from the hot sun.

Providing food means letting beetles, butterflies, and moth caterpillars chew plant leaves. As Schaefer puts it: "We must be willing to share our plants with insects. As long as it's not killing the plant, it's A-okay."

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