Pollinator gardens are “feel-good” projects. They’re a pleasure to work on, and they’re generally comparatively easy to design. I’ve met some wonderful clients through pollinator garden commissions, and children are often involved with pollinator gardens, too, which I really enjoy.
Above are some pictures I took in a pollinator garden I designed north of Raleigh, North Carolina. I somehow managed to take a few good photos in this garden using just my iPhone camera: an eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on a zinnia (zinnia x), a humming bird (I don’t know what kind) on a cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), a bumble-bee (Bombus ?) on a ‘Mexican Sunflower’ (Tithonia rotundifolia).
Pollinators pollinating are a spectacle, and they put on a riveting performance during summer. In addition to pollination, countless other epics and odysseys unfold in pollinator gardens. There are endless shows for those who pay attention. I used a heady mix of classic eastern North American “pollinator plants” in this pollinator garden …
Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Eastern Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), White Wild Indigo (Baptisia alba), Beardtongue (Penstemon grandifloras), Royal Catchfly (silene regia), Blazing Star (Liatris aspera), Tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata), ‘Common’ Milkweed (Asclepias Syriaca), ‘Butterfly’ Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), and Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa)
This palette created a stunning summer performance, but at the client’s request, I made it richer still by adding specific plants that pushed the show even further: Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum), several daylily cultivars (Hemerocallis x), a couple of David Austin’s exquisite hybrid ‘English’ roses (specifically, ‘Lady of Shalott’ and ‘Benjamin Britten’), and a few annual zinnias. For the final curtain call, I added three ‘Giant Zambesi Lilies’ (lilum x ), and I used two of my all-time favorite landscape “pollinator woodies” to transition from the garden to the adjacent woods: ‘White Redbuds’ (Cercis canadensis ‘alba,’) and ‘Scarlet Sumac’ (Rhus glabra). The effect was spectacular, and the clients and bugs loved it.
If you’d like to know more about pollinators and pollinator gardens, visit the United States Forest Service website, The United States Fish and Wildlife website, and pollinators.org.
Thoughts on Pollinators
and Pollinator Gardens
Populations of Monarch butterflies and honey bees are collapsing, and their decline has somehow managed to breach the array of elaborate barriers to Americans’ ecological consciousness. Most folks may not know that less than twenty percent of pre-1990 Monarch butterfly populations remains, that collapse of their epic migration is now more likely than not, and that as of this writing, global bee species have shrunk a full quarter since 1990 — but a not insignificant number of Americans know that butterflies and bees are in real trouble, and many of them are trying to help by planting “pollinator gardens.”
Mother Nature began designing pollinator gardens over two-hundred-million years ago during the late Triassic period, and she continued to enriched their ecological complexity, subtly, and beauty during the thousands of eons that followed — until we began destroying them in earnest about a couple of hundred years ago. Our efforts paid off, too. Not only are butterfly and bee species collapsing, overall, insect populations are rapidly declining worldwide, and their demise has everything to do with our ravenous consumption. We’ve consumed more than ninety-six percent of North America’s formerly great prairie “pollinator garden,” and what remains of our country’s other major pollinator ecosystems consists largely of our leftovers.
Pollinators have been losing ground (pun intended) in a struggle to survive on our roadsides, fence lines, lawns, right-of-way’s, setbacks, and UDO buffers (municipal unified development ordinances) — and these are typically filled with foreign plants and contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, and chemical runoff. In other words, the monarch butterfly and the honey bee are not the only creatures in peril — pollinators are declining across the globe, and their demise is just one of many ecological “coal-mine canaries” ominously heralding our demise … all of it a direct result of our crazed, greed-fueled, reckless consumption.
To be fair, I’ve not tracked metrics for pollinator gardens. It’s possible they’re making a tangible improvement in pollinator populations. At the least, they’re raising ecological awareness, and that’s a good thing, but if we’re serious about “saving the pollinators,” then we have to be honest with ourselves: as wonderful and meaningful as pollinator gardens are, truthfully, they’re more a self-soothing gesture of good will and intention than a serious strategy for addressing ecosystems’ decline. Stop-gap measures just aren’t going to cut it. If we’re going to “save the pollinators,” then we must ameliorate the root conditions and causes that threaten them: ecological ignorance, on-going habitat destruction, chemical contamination, deforestation, and increasingly intensive agriculture — all of which continue globally more or less unabated in order to meet the insatiable and ever-growing needs of nearly eight-billion (and counting) Homo sapiens.
Ecological indicators for pollinators present a grim picture, indeed. Still, when I observe children in awe of a butterfly’s glamor, and the sober, knowing expressions that come over their faces when they’re presented with the plain, elementary truth about pollinators, I dare to have a little hope. Let us all hope, but while were hoping, let us raise our level of awareness and ambition.