Five plants to start your pollinator garden

You’ve learned that pollinator populations are dwindling and that you can help by planting native species in your garden to provide habitat and food sources.

But what do you plant?

It can be overwhelming to look at all the options of native flowers that you can put in your garden. It’s even a lot for professionals when you consider one of the books that we have that addresses pollinator-friendly options has almost 200 pages worth of plants.

We’ve done the dirty work though and have selected five flowers that are garden-friendly, have a full season’s worth of bloom time from April-October and will draw in both butterflies and bees. Just remember to plant in clumps of the same species so that our pollinator friends can efficiently make it from one plant to the next, and provide plenty of sun and water!

1. Prairie Phlox

Photo of prairie phlox

Prairie phlox by Joshua Mayer

These gorgeous purple flowers are some of the earliest blooming, April-May, and are a great nectar and pollen source for pollinators early in the season. The plant grows 6-24 inches tall, loves the sun and is tolerant to a range of soils.

Prairie phlox is a host plant to the phlox moth and also draws clearwing moths, Peck’s skipper butterflies, green sweat bees, carpenter bees, yellow-faced bees, leafcutter bees, bumblebees and pollinating syrphid flies. Butterflies are the primary pollinator of prairie phlox, as pollen attaches to its proboscis while it drinks nectar.

Don’t confuse these with dame’s rocket, an invasive species that is sometimes still sold in plant nurseries. Dame’s rocket flowers have four petals while prairie phlox has five.

2. Prairie Smoke

Photo of prairie smoke

Prairie smoke

The next to bloom in your garden would be prairie smoke, which blooms late April-early June. Prairie smoke is a shorter flower, growing 4-12 inches tall, and is known for its pink, feathery seed heads. The foliage even remains green under snow cover.

Sweat bees feed on pollen near the opening of prairie smoke flowers, and bumblebees access pollen through sonication, or buzz pollination. Other pollinators such as wasps, beetles and other bees will chew through the side of a flower to access nectar.

(Mason bees are fantastic pollinators.)

3. Butterfly milkweed

Photo of orange butterfly milkweed plant

Butterfly milkweed

Butterfly milkweed, a host plant for the monarch butterfly, blooms mid-June through August each year. It has bright orange flowers and grows 12-36 inches tall, making it a vibrant addition to any garden.

In addition to monarch butterflies, which both lay their eggs on its leaves and drink its nectar as adults, butterfly milkweed also draws in sulphur butterflies, crescents and great spangled fritillaries. Leafcutter bees, sweat bees, small carpenter bees, small resin bees, some species of wasps, soldier beetles, ants and cuckoo bees also drink its nectar. Milkweed beetles eat the foliage of the plant.

(Six pollinators that aren’t bees or butterflies.)

4. Wild Bergamot

Photo of bergamot

Wild bergamot

Also called bee balm, wild bergamot is one of the best forage plants for bumbleebees with its flowers that are open continuously throughout the day when it blooms July-August. It is also the host plant for the hermit sphinx moth and snout moths. The black sweat bee is a specialist on wild bergamot, meaning this bee on feeds on bergamot nectar.

Wild bergamot draws in a pollinating crowd in addition to bumblebees. Its nectar is a favorite of eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies, silver spotted skippers, monarchs, great spangled fritillaries and a variety of moths. Native bees such as long-horned bees, cuckoo bees, sweat bees, wool carder bees, small resin bees, leafcutter bees all love wild bergamot. Pollinating soldier beetles and banded long-horned beetles can also be found on this prairie plant.

(Ah! It’s a wasp!)

5. Stiff Goldenrod

Photo of stiff goldenrod

Stiff goldenrod

Stiff goldenrod is a great option for gardens because it blooms later than many varieties. There is a misconception out there that goldenrod will give you allergic reactions, but it is not ragweed! Ragweed sometimes grows next to goldenrod in the wild, but goldenrod is a different plant.

Stiff goldenrod blooms July-September and grows 30-60 inches tall, so it is good at the back of the garden with shorter species in front. Unlike some other goldenrod species, stiff goldenrod has a fibrous root system and does not spread willy-nilly like some rhizomatous goldenrods.

It is a host plant for the dart moth, and some species of mining bees are a specialist that feed on its nectar alone. Its shallow, yellow flowers draw in many other species of bees — long-horned bees, sweat bees, bumblebees, leafcutter bees, yellow-faced bees, small carpenter bees — as well as the monarch butterfly, beetles, wasps and pollinating flies.

Purple, orange, yellow, pink, short, tall — pollinator plants bring beauty to any garden and are a wonderful way to help our pollinator species!



  1. Gerald Picus on July 12, 2019 at 8:49 am

    This is great info. It might be helpful to state where these plant seeds can be ordered online or purchased in stores. Thanks for this great info

    • kiley on July 12, 2019 at 10:31 am

      It depends on where you live. In the Iowa Great Lakes area, we recommend the Prairie Flower in Fostoria. If you live somewhere, I would look up “native nursery” or “natives garden center.”

  2. Judy on April 6, 2019 at 9:12 am

    thanks for info, have some of these around but this summer am stepping up variety. Live in SE MN.

Leave a Comment