As a vegetable gardener who wants to make good use of limited growing space, it can be hard to justify making room for flowers. But some blooms offer so many benefits that they earn their place, particularly perennials that come back year after year. Indeed, permanence is part of a perennial’s allure, for the gardener and the garden. Perennials are ready to start growing as soon as the ground warms in spring, and their constancy makes them good habitat for ground beetles – perhaps the most important beneficial insects that roam the garden each night in search of slugs and other tasty tidbits.
I also require perennials to be bee-friendly plants, but choosing favorites among local bees requires close observation. Honeybees and countless native species know what time of day each flower releases fresh pollen and nectar, so the same blossoms that are abuzz with bees in the morning may be of little interest by late afternoon. Watching to see what type of insects are visiting the flowers, and when, is the fun part.
With worldwide populations of monarch butterflies in distress, the one perennial flower I would not do without is butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), shown in the photo above, a common roadside wildflower in North America that can be grown in roomy pots in temperate regions such as the UK, which are stored semi-dry through the winter as a safeguard against sogginess. Monarch butterflies lay eggs on butterfly weed foliage, which the larvae then eat. This wonderful drama does not seem to shortcut the plants’ production of orange blossom clusters much visited by bees and butterflies in all shapes and sizes.
Bee Friendly Plants
One of the most recent perennials I have welcomed to my garden is rugged blanket flower (Gaillardia), which comes in several species and inter-species hybrids, such as the popular ‘Arizona Sun’ variety, which won both an All America Selections award and a Fleuroselect Gold Medal in 2005. I started with a nameless blanket flower strain that hangs on as a perennial, but also reseeds and grows as a hardy annual. At the right time of day, the blanket flowers are mobbed by honeybees. No wonder blanket flower is on the Royal Horticultural Society’s Perfect for Pollinators list, and was one of the first perennials planted at the University of California’s new bee-friendly garden last year.
Unlike many flowers for bees, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) pumps out as much nectar during the midday and afternoon hours as it does during the morning, so it is perhaps more useful to pollinators than many other flowers on a hot summer day. Butterflies and moths love the flowers, along with a dozen species of native bees.
But enough about my best perennial flowers for bees. What are yours? Bees’ preferred plants vary with climate, so your list may be similar or different from mine. Several years ago, Dr. Whitney Cranshaw of the University of Colorado led a team that tracked the number of times different flowers growing in gardens were visited by honeybees. Plants were rated from 0 (no interest) to 3 (often visited), and even though Colorado’s climate is far different from mine, it has been my experience that any plants rated with a 2 or 3 are likely to please not only honeybees, but random native bees as well.
Which perennials are the top bee-pleasers in your garden?