Native Gardens: Buzzing About These 5 Plants

A native bee expert's faves

Maryland native bee close-up
Native Bee, photo courtesy of USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Last week, the enthusiastic people at Unity Gardens, the Anne Arundel County supporter and funder of community native plant projects, tipped me off to a virtual meeting about creating a "pollinator pathway" - more about that in a minute. I signed on to zoom to see the stunning photograph above and hear one of the nation's foremost pollinator experts, Sam Droege of the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, talking. Not only that, he was answering questions! I asked him, just off the top of his head, for his favorite garden plants to support native bees. He said "soooo difficult" and quickly came up with these five plants:


Perennials

American alumroot (Heuchera americana)


This is the straight species of heuchera. It grows in part shade and sun in average and dry soils. It is semi-evergreen in southern parts of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This is what I call a workhorse plant. It provides texture in your garden and requires no maintenance. It also makes a great ground cover.


native false sunflower in bloom
Photo courtesy of Rusty Anderson

Oxeye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)


While I have not grown this, it looks like a delightful plant. The perennial flowers through much of summer in sun and takes a variety of soils as well as drought tolerant, once established. This plant grows 4 to 6 feet high.


Mountain Mint (Pycanthemum muticum)


Mountain mint is a super easy to grow perennial that gets about 4 feet tall and requires no care at all. While the flowers are very subtle, the minty green blooms last for months adding color to the garden. I call it a bee magnet. Sam called it "Bee TV!" There are several native species and Sam said they all work well. Slender mountain mint (Pycanthemum tenuifolium) is another mountain mint that is commonly available in local native plant nurseries.


Shrubs

Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)


This is a small deciduous shrub that grows to about 6 feet high in sun or part shade and average soil. It has three seasons of interest: small white flowers in spring, berries and fall color. While I have not grown this, we do have red chokeberry in our garden which grows in similar ways. Both are known as easy to grow shrubs needing little to no maintenance. Some sources note black chokeberry can spread fairly readily by suckers in moist conditions.


native st. john's wort bloom
Shrubby St. John's Wort (photo from Shutterstock)

Shrubby St. John's wort (Hypericum prolificum)


While I don't have any experience with this plant, Sam says shrubby St. John's wort has a lovely flower, is hardy, a good bee plant, and can form a short hedge/border. The Missouri Botanical Garden says it blooms from June through August all of which sounds pretty good.


This is one of those plants where you need to be very mindful while shopping. There are a number of non-native St. John's worts native to Europe and southern Asia sold, particularly at larger garden centers. This is where those latin names come in handy: "prolificum" is the native; "calycinum" and "perforatum" are non-native. Nature by Design and Direct Natives both have the native on their plant lists.


I learned a lot from Sam's short talk. Here in the Mid-Atlantic, we all live within a mile of a hundred species of native bees. Who knew? Check out Sam's short and incredibly easy read "Quick Background on the Mid-Atlantic's Native Bees!"


Back to the pollinator pathway. There is a blossoming effort in Maryland to join the pollinator pathway northeast in Connecticut and New York. The organizers make it incredibly simple to join. You commit to three steps: plant some natives and manage invasives, use no pesticides or herbicides, and rethink how you manage your lawn (mow higher and less often; consider reducing lawn size by adding shrubs, trees, a mini meadow; leave some bare ground and dead wood for nesting native bees; leave some autumn leaves for overwintering pollinating insects). That's it. You can sign on. It is actually a global movement.


I do, indeed, bee-lieve we can each make a difference with our gardens, whether a window box or an acre!

We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

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Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.