In past GrowVeg articles I’ve covered pleasing bees and other beneficial insects with perennials, shrubs and edibles, and each topic generated interesting reader comments. After reviewing them all, I saw a pattern among recommended plants for pollinator gardens. Many belonged to the botanical family Lamiaceae, a huge group of more than 7000 species that occur worldwide. If you want your garden to work as an insect conservatory, it should be well stocked with Lamiaceae.
From the first henbit blossoms of spring to late-blooming autumn sages, plants in the Lamiaceae family share a flower structure that can be accessed by a wide range of insects, including small bees. Insects need only a short tongue to reach the nectar and pollen hidden inside the two-lipped blossoms, which often show intricate spots and blotches of color as exotic as those seen in orchids. It’s a very successful scheme for attracting pollinators. In a study of bees visiting agastache (anise hyssop) in the northeastern US, researchers counted an average of 38 bees per square meter as daily visitors.
Lamiaceae Herbs for Pollinator Gardens
Lamiaceae herbs are frequently named as top plants for pollinator gardens, particularly agastache (anise hyssop), oregano, and all the cat herbs: catnip (Nepeta cataria), catmint (Nepeta mussinii, N. faassenii), and calamint (Calamintha nepeta). These hardy, short-lived perennials are easy to grow in a wide range of climates, and it’s not difficult to assemble a small collection so that some Lamiaceae herb is in bloom all the time. My own garden is quite hospitable to catnip, which requires minimal care and is rarely bothered by deer or other animals because of its aromatic leaves.
Most Lamiaceae herbs prove popular to a few specific insect species, but the blossoms of wild oregano (Origanum vulgare) attract a more diverse group of beneficial insects compared to its close relatives. The low, bushy plants will grow anywhere, but this low-brow oregano (sometimes called wild marjoram) produces flavorless leaves. For kitchen use, you need Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare hirtum), which is often propagated from stem cuttings to preserve the flavor of superior strains. But the plants will crown themselves with blossom clusters in late summer if allowed to do so, attracting scads of little insects.
The mints figure in here, too, though it has been my experience that the best culinary strains are slow to bloom, while wilder forms that are rampant spreaders bloom like crazy. As a gardener I much prefer well-mannered apple mint or peppermint, which are modest late season bloomers.
Pretty Perennial Lamiaceae Family Plants
One branch of the Lamiaceae family are called deadnettles because they do not sting, despite their resemblance to stinging nettles. Two species, the wild deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) and closely related henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) are common cool-season weeds that are well represented in my late winter garden. The plants bloom in early spring and often attract the interest of honeybees and other nectar seekers, so I allow a few plants to bloom provided they are not in the way. I also grow an ornamental deadnettle with white leaves commonly called ‘White Nancy’ (Lamium maculatum). It’s a great little ground cover for shade, featuring white or pink flowers in mid to late spring that are much visited by small insects.
For years I’ve grown lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) because the felted leaves are fun to share with kids, but then I noticed what happened when the bloom spikes emerged. Bees of various sizes visited the pink flowers throughout the day, which is how this old-time favorite has landed on many lists of plants for pollinator gardens. And there’s more. In Great Britain, California, and other places where they are present, wool carder bees visit lambs ear blossoms and gather the leaf felt for building their nests.