At long last there are flowers starting to bloom. This is always a particularly exciting time of year. After a long cold wet prelude to the real joy of Spring, we are so ready here in Oregon. I can see daffodils, tulips, flowering quince, and a particularly bright sunny mustard blooming in the field outside my home. Even the frogs have started to sing. With all the life awakening around us I thought it would be a great time to write about pollination. And to give you a few tips on how to plant with pollinators in mind.
There has been a lot of buzz (hehe) about pollinators over the past few years. A documented decline in pollinator populations is occurring. Which may be related to a host of factors like climate change, loss of habitat and environmental pollutants like chemical pesticides (1).
Pollinators are an integral part of the world we live in and as gardeners and farmers we have the ability to support them and the important work that they do.
What / Who Are Pollinators?
First, let's talk about what pollinators are and what they do. A pollinator refers to an insect or another creature that disperses pollen amongst plants and allows for their fertilization. One of the most commonly known pollinators is the social bee. But there are so many other animals that help pollinate such as bats, butterflies, rodents, birds, lizards and flies and even large mammals like deer. I love imagining the pollen covered noses of deer rambling through the forest. Even humans aid in pollination. Hand pollinating often occurs during plant breeding projects. So basically a pollinator is the agent of fertilization and pollination is the process by which plants are fertilized.
Plant pollination is an integral part of seed production. The seeds we grow and curate here at Siskiyou Seeds are all open-pollinated seeds. Which means that they are pollinated by various creatures and aspects of the natural world like wind. It is important for our farm to support a lot of different pollinators. We do this by planting flowering perennials and leaving natural spaces. This ensures that we have a healthy population of pollinators and that we get nice well developed seeds to share with the world. According to an article by Brianna Randall, published by the USDA, more than 80% of flowering plants require pollination (2). Without pollinators most of the food we eat would not develop. No cucumbers, chilis, peaches or tomatoes this summer without them.
Humans have a rather profound impact on the natural world. We know that we can destroy natural habitats but we can also help rebuild natural habitats. By leaving areas of your garden untended or by planting native plants you can help create semi-natural spaces around you.
How Do We Support Pollinators?
So what do you do if you want to help support pollinators in your garden and community? The easiest answer is to grow a garden. But there are some things we can consider when we plan a garden for pollinators.
One thing we can consider is what do pollinators like? There are different aspects of plants that indicate to pollinators which plants have the best food. Things like floral color, floral aroma, how rewarding the plant is or its nectar volume and also the positioning of the flowers reproductive organs all play a key role in determining what types of plants attract pollinators (3). There is research that shows that crop diversity is one of the more important factors to supporting pollinators (4). Floral scent is important for flowers that bloom at night when it is hard for their pollinators to see the color guides (5). Also scent is one of the easiest indicators for pollinators to remember.
Diversity in flower shape and color is also important. There are some pollinators that go to many different flowers for their food sources; these are called generalist pollinators like bees. There are others that are distinctly attracted to certain plants. A hummingbird is a great example of this. They have a long beak and are most attracted to tubular flowers where the nectar is deep and hard to reach for other species like bees. There are a lot of hummingbirds in the forest in Southern Oregon because they enjoy the red tubular flowers of Pedicularis densiflora, which is blooming right now. Some flowers have common names which let you know what they attract. Ascelpias tuberosa also known as Butterfly Weed attracts Monarch butterflies and many other butterflies to its flowers.
How to Plant a Pollinator Garden
Now that we have talked a little about the what and why. Here are some tips on how to plant a pollinator garden:
- Plant a diverse array of colors and shapes of flowers to attract as many pollinators as possible.
- Plant flowers with different aromas and scents.
- Plant a few of the same flowers in clumps so that the pollinator can visit all of those flowers before moving onto a different food source.
- Stagger bloom times so that there is always food available for pollinators. Such as planting cover crops in the fall that will bloom in the early spring or succession planting.
- Plant perennial blooming borders to provide year round nesting sites for pollinators. Lavender, hyssop and other perennial herbs make excellent border plants.
- Consider having a less cultivated semi-natural space in your garden, yard or farm.
- Encourage your community to plant for pollinators as well so that your garden is not isolated.
Planting for pollinators is a beautiful and rewarding way to garden. Not only will you have all those amazing flowers around but you will grow better food too! I love being out in the garden and watching bees nuzzle pollen on their legs or watching butterflies gracefully alight upon a Sunflower.
Lead Seed Coordinator, Siskiyou Seeds
1. Grozinger, C., & Fleisher, S. (22AD, November 23). Penn State Extension. Retrieved from https://extension.psu.edu/pollinator-declines
2. Randall, B. (2n.d., June 22). The Value of Birds and Bees. Farmers.gov. Retrieved from https://www.farmers.gov/blog/value-birds-and-bees
3. Sheehan H, Hermann K, Kuhlemeier C. Color and scent: how single genes influence pollinator attraction. Cold Spring Harb Symp Quant Biol. 2012;77:117-33. doi: 10.1101/sqb.2013.77.014712. Epub 2013 Mar 6. PMID: 23467550.
4. Aguilera, G, Roslin, T, Miller, K, et al. Crop diversity benefits carabid and pollinator communities in landscapes with semi-natural habitats. J Appl Ecol. 2020; 57: 2170– 2179. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.13712
5. Wright, G. A., & Schiestl, F. P. (2009). Functional Ecology, 23(4), 841–851. https://doi.org/10.1111/fec.2009.23.issue-4
Written by Taryn Hunter