5 Best Plants for Bees and Butterflies in the Garden

june 11, 2023

I’ve said this before, and I will say it forevermore – my garden is not just for me. I spend countless hours designing, planning, planting and tending to it. And I certainly get an immense amount of sustenance – to my mind, body and soul. But I don’t do it just for me. My garden is home to many creatures, big and small. And I keep them in mind with every decision I make. One of my favorite things to do is to incorporate plants for bees and butterflies in the garden. And I am sharing them with you in hopes that you incorporate them into your garden too!

Important of Pollinators

Before we get into the specific plants for bees and butterflies, let’s talk a bit about why you should even want them in your garden. First and foremost – pollinators like bees and butterflies are a major factor in growing the food that we eat. About 35% of our food depends on pollinators to reproduce, which means 1 in 3 bites of food you eat are thanks to our pollinators.

However, our pollinators are in serious decline – from habitat loss to disease to death from exposure to pesticides. It is very scary to consider a future without our beloved pollinators that are the backbone to plant reproduction. But we can help by incorporating plants for bees and butterflies in our gardens. You can also help by setting up a mason bee house for your native mason bees. If you’re interested in exploring that further, you can read my blog post on mason bees here.

Characteristics of Pollinator-Friendly Plants

Over the course of natural evolution, plants and pollinators have greatly depended on one another for survival, and even adapted to strengthen their symbiotic relationship. For example, scientists discovered that the passion flower has evolved many times over million years to adjust to their symbiotic relationship with hummingbirds. Some species even evolved to expand their ability to be pollinated by bees and bats when hummingbirds were in decline.

These symbiotic relationships exist between many specific plants and pollinators. And there are some key characteristics to guide you towards what will be most attractive to each. The first being color. Did you know that bees and butterflies can only see certain colors? And not even the same colors as one another! While their color range may be limited – they can see ultraviolet light – something we cannot see as humans. The ultraviolet light helps bees and butterflies better see the nectar of the plant – acting as a sort of guide to where they need to land.

Bees can generally see a range of colors including yellow, green, blue and violet, but cannot see red. You will notice that bees are mostly attracted to plants that are purple, violet and blue. Butterflies, on the other hand, can see red – and are attracted to red flowers (as well as purple and violet) when feeding. It is important to note that butterflies are attracted to different plants for two different reasons – one being to feed, and the other being to lay their eggs. So they will generally avoid green when feeding, but be attracted to green when it’s time to lay their eggs near a good food source. We have great suggestions for both kinds of plants below!

5 Plants for Bees and Butterflies in the Garden

1) Milkweed

Milkweed is not only a beautiful plant, but also serves as a food source for many pollinators and a breeding habitat for monarch butterflies, which are on the endangered species list. There are 73 species of milkweed that are native in the United States, though they are in series decline as well due to use of herbicides and land development.

By planting a patch of milkweed in your garden, you are providing a vital food source for these beautiful butterflies, as well as an exclusive spot for them to lay their eggs. When choosing a milkweed for your garden, make sure to opt for one that is native to your area. That is the best way to not only support your local pollinators, but also make sure that the plant adapts well to your environment. You can find out which species is native to your region using these guides here.

Best Plants for Bees and Butterflies in the garden

Milkweed typically does well in full sun with well-draining soil. You can start it from seed, but it can be a bit difficult. The seeds need cold stratification before they can germinate, which can be achieved by storing the seeds in your fridge or freezer before planting. If you are interested in finding seeds, you can use this Milkweed Finder Tool to find great sources of your local milkweed species.

2) Lavender

My personal opinion is that every single garden should have at least one lavender plant. My garden has about 15! And if there is one thing true in my garden, it is that any lavender plant in bloom is covered with bumblebees and honeybees. Lavender seems to be a particular favorite of bumblebees due to their long tongue that can efficiently extract the nectar from the lavender flowers.

plants for bees and butterflies

Lavender is a perennial evergreen shrub that is native to the Mediterranean, but has become a staple in most gardens. The fragrant leaves and flowers are well known for their calming effects on our nervous system. The essential oil of lavender is also known to have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties

This beautiful plant will last many years in your garden, ranging from 1-3 feet wide and 1-3 feet high, depending on the variety you choose. It is best to plant lavender in full sun in well-draining soil. It can take a long time to grow lavender from seed, so it’s best to buy from a nursery if you wish to see it bloom right away.

3) Echinacea

You likely recognize this name from the supplement aisle in your local grocery store. Yes, echinacea is a well known herbal medicine to boost your immune system and fight colds. But it is also one of the best plants for bees and butterflies! There will be no shortage of pollinators visiting your echinacea.

You may see it referred to as “coneflower” at the nursery, which is its common name. Echinacea comes in many different colors, but always maintains its beautiful daisy-like shape with its large center cone. My personal favorite is Echinacea purpurea, which is a wild Echinacea with pinkish-purple petals. Make sure keep in mind the color spectrum that the bees and butterflies can see when choosing which color echinacea you want to plant.

Echinacea likes full sun, though it can still do well in partial sun. It requires well draining soil – and honestly can grow in the worst of soils. You can easily find echinacea at the nursery in the summertime. But keep in mind that they do not like to be transplanted. This means, do not break up their root ball at all before planting them in your garden. You can also start them from seed. They require a damp and cold environment in order to germinate, so it is best to sow the seeds in the fall and wait for them to sprout in late spring.

4) Allium

Allium is one of the most fun plants for bees and butterflies. Every time I show my garden to someone, they will make a comment about the allium. How could you not? This unique flower is actually an ornamental onion, sprouting from a bulb that multiplies year over year. 

The spherical globe-like flower is called an umbel, which is an inflorescence of many tiny little flowers. If you look closely at an allium, you will see each individual flower, and likely many bees feeding from them! Alliums come in a range of colors, from white to pink to purple to blue. There are also different shapes and heights to choose from. Some of my favorites are Globemaster and Purple Sensation.

Alliums are best planted as bulbs in the fall, a few weeks before the ground freezes. They are best planted in a sunny spot (though they can tolerate partial shade). The bulbs will develop their roots over the winter/early spring and start to flower in late spring/early summer. They will continue to come back year after year, increasing in flowers as the bulbs multiply!

5) Salvia

Last, but certainly not least, is salvia. This versatile plant is in the mint family and comes in a wide range of colors and sizes. Salvia is one of those plants that I have multiple varieties of in my garden, and they feel like completely different plants. But they are one of the most beloved plants for bees and butterflies. 

Some salvias are woody shrubs, while others completely die back in the winter. Depending on your zone, they can be perennials. They love full sun and are quite drought tolerant once established. Some require deadheading in order to continue blooming through the summer. 

I recommend adding a couple of different colors to your garden to maximize your pollinator visits! Blue or purple salvia will attract the bees and butterflies. And a red salvia, such as Hot Lips, will be a favorite to the hummingbirds.

If you are looking to start a pollinator garden, these five options are excellent plants for bees and butterflies. Let’s all do our part to support our native pollinators, and enjoy their company along the way!

Happy gardening!

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