Margaret Lauterbach

Native plant varieties draw helpful bug and bird pollinators

Margaret Lauterbach
Margaret Lauterbach

Were your plants properly pollinated this year? Poor pollination often results in deformed cucumbers or other fruit such as lopsided tomatoes, or zero seeds. Pay attention to flying creatures in your garden that could serve as pollinators. We can plant things to attract pollinators, so that the pollen they pick up can be transferred to other flowers. We often think that unusually high temperatures have restricted pollination, but remember our nights are cool, so there are windows within which pollination can and does occur.

Planting native plants to attract pollinators means that those plants won’t require special conditions such as copious water or acidic soil to thrive. The main problem with native plants’ attracting pollinators is that they tend to have short blossom periods. That requires good sequence planting to keep pollinators interested.

Ann DeBolt, botanist with the Idaho Botanical Garden, reported native plants such as golden currant, red osier dogwood, biscuitroots (such as Indian or desert parsley) and chokecherries are favorite resorts of native flies, bees and other flying pollinators in early spring. Many years ago I ordered plants or seeds from a company that sent free shrubs with each order. I received a chokecherry and planted it. It struggled to survive (too much water and fertilizer, not happy with our altitude or webworms ). The day I noticed tomato hornworms in it, I removed the sad little shrub. I wouldn’t recommend growing chokecherries in our city.

Some non-native plants also attract pollinators such as solitary, orchard mason and honey bees, the latter not native to this continent. Plants such as dandelions and a shrub in my yard, “breath of spring” honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), are full of bees and tiny wasps when the weather is right for their foraging. The weather is right for them when the air temperature is between 55 and 100 degrees and the wind is blowing softer than 12 mph.

DeBolt wrote that later in spring natives such as bitterbrush, snowberry, penstemons, globemallow, fleabanes, evening primrose and Douglas false yarrow attract a variety of bees, wasps, hummingbirds and moths. Idaho hosts 43 different penstemons among our natives, she added. Not all of these flowers have shallow nectar reserves, so the tiny wasps may not take advantage of those. They certainly love non-natives such as mint, parsley, dill, fennel and Vitex flowers when they bloom later in summer.

DeBolt reports other good summer pollinator-attractors are buckwheats, prickly pear cactus, Monarda and elderberry blossoms. They’re inviting to hummingbirds and butterflies as well as native bees, flies, moths and wasps. Butterflies such as monarch butterflies go for our “weedy” milkweeds, so please let them be. Many years ago there was an elementary school teacher in the Boise area who included monarch butterflies’ lives in her class instruction, educating many students about these fragile but intrepid creatures. The students by now have probably dispersed all over the world, but I’d bet they remember the monarchs.

De Bolt added that in late summer to fall, blossoms of native asters, goldenrod, rabbitbrush and hoary aster are “busy with visits from butterflies and bees.”

The foothills fire in the ’90s sent hordes of wasps into the city, and then many gardeners began to notice the beneficial labors of those wasps. They were patrolling our gardens, gobbling aphids and watching for newly hatched, tiny larvae that they picked up and carried to provision their nests. During their foraging, they may be accidentally pollinating our flowers too. Wasps built nests in birdhouses, clothesline pole supports, Tumblebugs (compost tumblers invented locally), under soffits, etc. We’ve let them be except when they tried to put a nest in a frequently used doorway. But I haven’t had larvae in broccoli or any hornworms since.

If you have seen a good supply of pollinators in your yard, you can continue to keep them by being careful not to use broad spectrum insecticides that kill every moving critter for long periods of time. But when absolutely necessary, use controls specific for your destructive insect. All beneficial insects need tiny drinks of water that can be supplied by shallow saucers (emptied nightly so you’re not raising mosquitoes) or the beads of water that form on soaker hoses.

Send garden questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.