Unwanted plants in the garden (weeds) can be such a headache, but many of them do a great job at supporting area pollinators, including bees, butterflies and other insects. Find a place where they can have their space, whether it’s as a cover crop, along a fence row, or by creating an insectary border around your property. Jessica Walliser recommends thinking before you dismiss all weeds. In her book Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden, she writes “It has been documented that the presence of certain weeds increases the population of beneficial insects and therefore reduces pest damage.” In addition, inviting more wildlife to your garden can be part of your integrated pest management system while benefitting the production of healthy, delicious, ripe fruits and vegetables.
Here are three common volunteer plants that display redeeming qualities for pollinators. Pay attention to each one during its season to appreciate the diversity of wildlife in your garden or farm.
Spring: Stingless Deadnettle For Bees
The ubiquitous purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) is a small herb that grows in all U.S. regions except for extremely hot or cold areas. This valuable weed is an early blooming flower, showing up by Valentine’s Day in the southeast, and as soon as the ground has thawed in northern states.
Just as honeybees and native bees begin foraging, the deadnettle is opening up for business, with its lavender-colored corollas ready to serve. The genus name Lamium comes from the Greek word for throat, referring to the narrow tubes a the base of the small flowers. These throats hold the nectar and are shaped to fit a bee’s mouthparts while it transfers pollen onto its body. To understand more about the matched parts that flowers and pollinators have co-evolved with, see the USDA guide to pollinator syndromes.
Even though it is technically considered invasive, deadnettle and its close cousin henbit are relatively unobtrusive. They provide a soft ground cover with shallow roots that are easy to pull up. Allow them to bloom, feed pollinators, and run their course, then pull them up in the warmer months, after they’ve dried up and turned brown. Simply drop them in the garden as a mulch or add them to your compost.
As a bonus, deadnettle is edible. There’s no sting to the fuzzy-leaved deadnettle, hence the “dead” in the common name. It is good as a salad green or sauteed, or added to a frittata like any green. Even though it belongs in the mint family (check out the signature square stem) it has little to no mint flavor.
Summer: Milkweed For Monarchs
Milkweed (Asclepias sp.) attracts many different types of pollinators including honeybees, bumblebees, native bees, wasps and large butterflies. One butterfly in particular has co-evolved with milkweed in a tenuous partnership for survival: the monarch butterfly.
Nature has timed the blooming of milkweeds to coincide serendipitously with the monarch butterfly’s summertime migration from across North America, traveling as far as 3,000 miles in search of the right plant to host caterpillars. Each generation of butterflies lives only a few weeks as they move along to the next waystation, lay eggs and die. Without enough host plants, monarch generations come to an end, which is evident in the huge decline in the monarch population during the past decade.
Milkweed blossoms are important nectar sources, but the leaves are even more important for monarchs. This is the only type of plant that a monarch caterpillar (the larval phase) can eat. Don’t let the name fool you; many varieties of milkweed are native to your area of the U.S., and you can help monarchs by planting more of this beautiful and beneficial plant.
Common milkweed adapted to agriculture and once was a normal, although marginal, part of a farm, popping up between rows and along fences, wherever it wasn’t a bother to the crops. With wider use of pesticides and more mechanized production, farmland has become more sterile and lacks the wild diversity. Monarch Watch, a national organization sponsored by University of Kansas, reports that “Because 90 percent of all milkweed/monarch habitats occur within the agricultural landscape, farm practices have the potential to strongly influence monarch populations.” Every farmer or gardener can do something to help repair lost habitat, but it largely depends on eliminating herbicides and pesticides.
Monarch Watch classifies the varieties of milkweed by ecoregion. You can order plugs directly from the site or find them at your local native plants retail nursery.
- Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed)
- Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Milkweed)
- Asclepias incarnata (Swamp Milkweed)
- Asclepias verticillata (Whorled Milkweed)
- Asclepias asperula (Antelopehorn Milkweed, Spider Milkweed)
- Asclepias viridis (Green Antelopehorn Milkweed)
Gulf Coast Species
- Asclepias incarnata (Swamp Milkweed)
- Asclepias perennis (Aquatic Milkweed)
Midgrass & Short Grass Prairie Species
- Asclepias speciosa (Showy Milkweed)
- Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed)
Milkweed sap can be irritating to skin, so use caution when working with these plants. To create an alluring waystation for monarchs, a space of at least 100 square feet is recommended for planting milkweed and other butterfly-attracting nectar plants. This can be broken up into various areas on your property. Plant as many varieties of milkweed and other butterfly plants to maximize bloom succession. Finally, join the community of butterfly lovers who have dedicated space in their gardens to monarchs, by certifying your waystation with Monarch Watch.
Autumn: Asters For All
Asters (Symphyotrichum sp., Aster sp., Eurybia sp. and Doellingeria sp.) include a worldwide collection of 250 types. No matter where you live in North America, there is a native aster that you might mistake for a weed.
Late bloomers, they bring the last splashes of reds, purples, pinks, yellows and whites before autumn leaves start to take over the color displays. This is perfect timing for hungry harvesters looking for their last bit of nectar and pollen before winter. Asters are wildly popular among a variety of pollinators, including small butterflies and skippers, and an assortment of interesting native bees and flies. Many common asters are also important larval host plants for butterflies such as the pearl crescent.
Asters are in the aptly named Asteraceae, also known as Compositae, family of plants. Composite refers to their flower heads, which are actually clusters of many tiny flowers encircled by ray-like bracts. Since a flower head holds a large number of flowers, each with its own little pot of nectar, many different insects can visit at the same time, providing a community of activity to observe in a compact space.
In your garden, asters may look weedy as they grow taller and taller, until the colorful blossoms finally open up. Lower leaves tend to dry up and wilt while the flowers are still in their glory days, so some mindful placement of medium-height plants can help with the aesthetic appeal of the awkward aster. Also note that asters can reproduce via underground runners and by seed, so take care that they are in a place that can accommodate their colonization. Or, divide them in the spring by digging up the roots that are spreading, and transplant them to another spot. Better yet, share them with a friend who could use more pollinators in their garden or farm.
Why Feed Pollinators With Weeds?
Farmers feed the world, and pollinators feed us by visiting the right plants at the right time. They make about a third of the food we eat possible. So, it’s time to remember to feed the pollinators too. Think of your property as a piece of a puzzle that makes up a much grander, complex ecosystem. Understanding that the flowers on the plants in your yard could provide pollen that will be transferred to another yard and another plant, and vice versa, you may begin to get the sense that your small wildlife habitat is a fragment of a much larger picture. Whether it’s a 3,000-mile monarch migration or a beetle scooting under a neighbor’s fence, pollinators, as with most wildlife, dwell where they need to, regardless of our boundaries. How you choose to handle insects on your property will affect your neighborhood and beyond. Be brave and let your neighbors know that you’ve chosen not to spray any insecticides, that you encourage beneficial insects, and that you’d appreciate their help by doing the same.