Nectar as food in our wildlife habitat garden

Monarch with native salvia ©Janet AllenMonarch with native salvia

Many plants have nectar for butterflies, other insects, and birds, but native plants are the best source. Research has found that native plants are four times more attractive to pollinators than are non-natives.

A monarch butterfly showed me the importance of native plants. The year this photo was taken was the first year I planted the 'Lady in Red' cultivar of a native salvia (Salvia coccinea) and the last year I planted the more common hybrid salvia bedding plant, mixed together in this bed.

The butterfly nectared only at the natives throughout the bed, ignoring the hybrids.

A sphinx moth ©Janet Allen
Monarda is a favorite of many insects, such as this sphinx moth

The bedding salvia, of course, was hybridized by people for people. It has the big, vivid, easy-to-grow qualities people like, while apparently losing the nectar of its native ancestor.

It's important to provide nectar through all the seasons (except winter, of course, at least here in Central New York). Here's a small sampling of some of our favorite nectar plants though the seasons, but more nectar plants are shown in the Food for butterflies and the Food for bees pages.

Nectar in spring

Pussy willow ©Janet AllenPussy willow

Early sources of nectar are important, but who knows how changes in the climate—already happening—will affect how the sources of nectar and the emergence of insects synch up?

This bee can hardly wait while this pussy willow (Salix discolor) transitions from the more-familiar gray catkins to being in full flower, full of nectar.

Before we grew this plant, I never realized this flowering phase followed the catkins. Now it's one of the things I look forward to each spring.

Bloodroot ©Janet AllenAn insect getting nectar from bloodroot

Bloodroot is one of the earliest blooming wildflowers and I saw several types of bees buzzing around.

Unfortunately, I have more double bloodroots than single. The double ones are beautiful, but so are the single-petaled flowers, and bees can probably reach the nectar more easily.

Winterberry flowers ©Janet AllenWinterberry flowers

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) nectar is a bonus, since we planted these for their berries, which birds enjoy in the winter.

We were surprised to see so many insects buzzing about these really tiny flowers. They must be chock-full of nectar.

Penstemon ©Janet AllenPenstemon

Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis) is a bee favorite in late spring and early summer. Hummingbirds also visit.

Nectar in summer

Joe-pye ©Janet AllenJoe-pye

Joe-pye (Eupatorium maculatum) is a tall stately plant. It's hard to fathom why its common name is "joe-pye weed", but I guess the first settlers considered anything that grew naturally in this country so unlike what they were used to that they considered them "weeds."

This is one of the tall plants I've started cutting back early in the season so it doesn't grow so tall. It then delays flowering, so I don't cut them all, but it's nice to have some smaller, bushier plants. This also extends the season somewhat, which I'm sure benefits the bees and butterflies.

Coneflowers ©Janet AllenConeflowers

Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a favorite nectar plant for butterflies, bees, and other insects. It's easy to grow, too.

I favor the plain species rather than all the new cultivars, many of which are just garish novelties. And who knows how much nectar remains after all the selecting and hybridizing?

Native rose ©Janet AllenBee nectaring at a native rose

It's easy for bees to get to the nectar of this native rose (Rosa virginiana).

Imagine how difficult it would be for a bee to get nectar from a hybrid tea rose with all those petals—assuming there was any nectar there to begin with.

Nectar in fall

Woodland sunflower  ©Janet AllenWoodland sunflower

The woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus) is one of my fall favorites. Bees love it, too.

I planted this nectar-rich plant on the side of the house where we have an arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), a serviceberry (Amelanchier canadense), and an Armstrong maple (Acer rubrum 'Armstrong'). It's clear that it grows well in part shade!

I'm letting it fill in as much as it wants—and it generally does want. It could be a problem if we planted it in our regular garden beds, but it works well in this space.

Stiff goldenrod ©Janet AllenStiff goldenrod

Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) is one of many beautiful species of goldenrods. (Goldenrods are all in the genus Solidago.) From the number of bees in the photo, it's clearly a very good nectar plant.

Many people think that the common Canada goldenrod (S. canadensis) they see en masse in fields IS goldenrod, but it's only one of many kinds. Of course, if its name didn't include "weed," people might appreciate its sunny yellow blooms more.

New England aster ©Janet AllenNew England aster

New England asters (Aster novae-angliae) and goldenrods (Solidago spp.) are a common fall combo.

Besides beauty, they're provide a key source of nectar for monarchs, who are building up reserves for their long trip to Mexico.