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A Guide to Pollinator-friendly Plants

A Guide to Pollinator-friendly Plants

Bee on flower

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, native plants and grasses bedecked the American landscape in huge, rolling swathes. Pollinators of many a feather, stripe and fur would spend their days visiting each flower as it bloomed, partners in a whirling dance of ongoing life.

Humans however – especially colonial humans – have a way of interrupting that dance. The woodlands and fields don’t blush with color as they once did, and pollinator species are having a harder time than ever finding enough food to support them through the seasons.

Luckily, wherever you live – whether it’s southern rocky mountain steppes, coastal chaparral, or parkland prairie – there’s a guide to giving your own region pollinators a helping hand.

Kudos goes to the Pollinator Partnership and the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPCC). These bodies came together to create over a score of free custom planting guides to help businesses, counties and individuals plant the very best natives to give nourishment and shelter to pollinators. Not only will this aid in bringing back color and activity to all corners of the upper continent, but improve farmers’ fruit quality and yield too.

Rather than divide up the country into states, the guide was developed using Bailey’s ‘Ecoregions of the World’ classification system, designed by the United States Forest Service beginning in 1976. On an ecological level, this makes more sense. State borders are arbitrary; where they lie has more to do with history and politics than habitat factors like climate and terrain type. Bailey’s system maps the land according to macroclimate (“the climate that lies just beyond the local modifying irregularities of landform and vegetation”), and is the preferred reference for land management practices throughout large areas.

South Carolina’s Southeastern Mixed Forest Province

Southeastern Mixed Forest Province

Image credit: Pollinator Partnership

Our own Blythewood Bee Company is based in South Carolina, and so classifies as a Southeastern Mixed Forest province. It is numbered the 231st in Bailey’s Ecosystem Provinces, and covers some 193,000 square miles of piedmont and irregular Gulf Coastal Plains. Along with Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi (and parts of six other states), the largely swampy region is characterized by broadleaf deciduous and needleleaf evergreen forests, with a sloping coastal ledge, humid summers, mild winters, and elevations ranging from less than 100 to 1,000 feet. The guide tells us that “peaches, strawberries, watermelon, and cauliflower are some of the crops raised in the [province] that rely on honey bees and native bees for pollination” – so its them we can thank for our smoothies and creamed cauli soups.

Although this broad southeastern wedge is notable for its ecodiversity when it comes to freshwater species and shrubs, it has a conservation status of Critical/Endangered. “This ecoregion is perhaps the most heavily altered,” notes the WWF, “having been heavily and repeatedly logged and now largely converted to agriculture.”

Here, as everywhere, each kind of pollinator has its own flower preference type. Bats enjoy musty, nocturnal aromas given off by dull white blossoms; butterflies are drawn to tubular red and purple petals, with broad landing pads for them to perch. Bees also have a penchant for tubular flowers (it’s the long tongues), but those which are colored bright white, yellow and blue instead. To preserve systems diversity and a strong community to benefit all, it’s best to plant a range of flowers, rather than ones for a single pollinator type. As an equal top priority, ensure at least one flower from the mix is in bloom for each season.

Southeastern Mixed Forest Province flower charts

Central to this handy guide is its comprehensive bloom period chart, categorically separated by trees and shrubs, perennials and vines. It tells us, for example, that in the spring, Redbud and American Holly will germinate to begin the nectar flow for bees. Come summer, in June-July, workers will be found abuzz on white-flowered Oak-leaf Hydrangeas and Devil’s Walking Stick, and Golden-asters will build up the hive’s stores right through to autumn.

Because native bees are a varied lot, and just as crucial for pollination as any other, there’s another chart just for them – the digger bees, leafcutter bees, mason bees and more. Sunflowers are shown to be a favorite across types, but it’s only the mason bees that will take the time for apple.

To begin your own eco-smart sowing, head to the website to download your region-specific guide, where you’ll be asked to put in a zip code to reveal which one is best for you. For an alternative or supplement, the University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences has developed their own peer-based planting guide, available on their website here. Through implementing the knowledge and research contained in both, you can play your own valuable part in enabling the land and all who depend on it to thrive.

By Kate Prendergast

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