Pollinators can be picky. Certain butterflies have a taste for milkweed; hummingbirds tend to like tube-shaped flowers; bees need a dish of water to really be happy in a garden.
Mamas and papas of Northwest gardens want to know: What makes pollinators happy and what can I do if I want them around? You plant native flowers. A whole host of Northwest vines, shrubs and perennials produce beautiful blooms that make welcome returns year after year. That’s not to say pollinators won’t visit non-native flowers, but a taste of home is so much more appealing.
If you’ve set your heart on doing a favor for butterflies, bees and hummers; don’t forget bats, moths, flies and beetles also do their part and if possible should be considered welcome attendees of the pollination party, here are our top six native perennials to delight your motley crew of pollinators.
It’s said that R. sanguineum were common amongst the homesteads of turn-of-the-century settlers. The Northwest noobs would happen upon red-flowering currants in the woods and, enjoying them so much, dig the shrubs up to take home. How's that for planting native? These days, you can get them as yearlings or semi-mature in full bloom like a fountain of tiny magenta-pink flowers.
GROWING GUIDE: Plant in a sunny or partly shady location. They’re native to our coastal regions so take sun and shade with ease. Water the first two seasons to establish the plant. After that, they’re extremely drought tolerant.
Among penstemon species P. serrulatus is known to be particularly tolerant of shady, moist locations and acid soil. We wouldn’t quite call it a “shade plant,” but Western-Washington penstemon lovers take what we can get—and boy do they give. From mid-summer to fall Cascade penstemon blooms open-mouthed tubes in blues and purples.
GROWING GUIDE: A moist location is a good idea. In the wild they grow along stream beds, in gullies and on rocky slopes. As you can imagine, that means it can withstand shade, part-shade, full sun, wet lowlands and alpine locations. Basically point and plant; you’ll be good.
The Fair Trader
Salal is often noticed later in the season, when it’s sporting pink/white berries amid shiny green leaves. Still, in full bloom in early spring, G. shallon flowers look like the arching bells of lily of the valley Convallaria majalis, but on a shrub! It’s so pretty, and tough as nails to boot.
GROWING GUIDE: Salal gives what it gets. In a moist location, rich with organic matter, it gets as big as 5–10 feet tall. But, that same sub-shrub planted in a poor soil/full sun location will stay only a foot or two high. This habit actually makes it a great ground cover for embankments and exposed slopes.
Tootin’ This Horn(-Shaped) Hero
Vines are the unsung heroes of city gardens. Western Trumpet honeysuckle is native to Northwest forests but their whole jam is perfect for urban living. Small spaces make growing up a great option; tight places generally offer shade or part-shade; it even does well in containers. Lest we leave out our suburban/countryside fellow gardeners, salal is also rarely touched by deer. Boom.
GROWING GUIDE: Plant in a shady or partly shady location. Provide support, like a trellis or neighboring tree, or the vine will grow along the ground. Be patient—it’s a slow grower, but once it takes off it blooms for months.
Butterflies Be Like
Showy milkweed is the only plant to play host to the larvae of Monarch butterflies. Once hatched, the pre-butterflies eat themselves silly and, in doing so, absorb toxic chemicals that make them unpalatable to enemies their entire lives. Unfortunately, we don’t see many Monarchs in Western Washington, but other butterflies love it too!
GROWING GUIDE: Plant in a sunny location that is easy to keep moist. The native habitat of A. speciosa includes stream beds and forest clearings so wet areas with good drainage work best. Milkweed can be poisonous if ingested, so keep out of reach of children or pets.
Granny’s Got Groove
Columbine is sometimes called Granny’s Bonnet, but the beautifully delicate flowers really don’t warrant such a stuffy name. Then again, this flower is full of contradictions. Its petal's peaks and points lend an exotic feel yet look at home in a cottage garden. They don’t live long (3–4 years) but are prolific self-seeders and reproduce easily. There’s no reason not to try our handsome native species, A. formosa.
GROWING GUIDE: Plant in a shady or partly-sunny location. Columbine are most comfortable in a location that doesn't dry out completely. Remove flowers as they fade for bonus blooms in late summer.