Look to native plants to attract bees

08/22/2014 7:00 AM

08/22/2014 12:00 PM

A Midwestern garden lover got me thinking about daisies. His small yard has been transformed into a miniature version of the tallgrass prairie that once cloaked the deep loam where his house stands now.

“The bees just don’t go to the Shasta daisies,” he said. “They flock to the coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and blanket flowers, but leave the Shastas alone. I’m going to pull them all out.”

The moment he said it I knew why Shasta was different. This white daisy is not a native perennial but a unique creation of the famous California plant breeder Luther Burbank.

The Shasta’s ancestry is diverse. Burbank crossed the oxeye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare, with the English field daisy, Leucanthemum maximum. The best progeny of this cross were sprinkled with pollen of the Portuguese field daisy, L. lacustre. All of these plants share the same genus and thus are closely related species that resulted in triple hybrids.

Then it got complicated. Burbank crossed his triple hybrids with the Japanese field daisy, Nipponanthemum nipponicum, which made the Shasta an intergeneric cross. This ancestry blended species from North America, England and Europe with a totally different genus from far west Asia for a whopper of a gene pool that produced a flower few insects recognize.

This year I visited another garden that was humming with bee activity. A long border of plants included a gorgeous big patch of Shastas. Lo and behold, I couldn’t find a single bee on a hundred white flowers, while a scraggly purple coneflower right next to them was alive with insects.

This demonstrates one of the most important aspects of hybrid garden plants and their distorted or destroyed relationship with honeybees. Burbank’s Shasta lost something in the process.

Maybe it no longer makes nectar, or perhaps its scent changed. The snow-white petals may lack the invisible sign posts recognized by bee-vision that guide them to the nectar source. Until we all started looking at pollinators and their favorite nectar plants, nobody knew about this problem, which may be shared by many familiar garden hybrids. While stunningly beautiful, they lost their value in the environment.

When planting a garden of native perennials to provide beauty, habitat and drought-resistant color, keep the tale of the Shasta in mind. If you love Shastas as cut flowers, compensate by grouping them with these native prairie perennials that bees and other pollinators know and love.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): This is the magenta-colored coneflower of the tallgrass prairie. Pinky purple is its natural color, while named varieties produce white- or orange-colored flowers.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta): This short-lived perennial is found in every state outside the Southwest, proving widespread adaptability. It’s yellow with a brown center, but dozens of varieties feature all the sunset hues.

Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella): This species is a wildflower throughout much of the Eastern and Central states with a shorter life span. Early on breeders crossed it with G. aristata, another widely distributed native, to create Gaillarda x grandiflora. Because these hybrids are a result of crosses between two closely related perennials from the same region, the new plants proved attractive to pollinators.

All too often you’ll find our most common garden flowers have been altered by the hand of man. Whether it’s selection of sunflowers by Native Americans or scientific irradiation of seed to stimulate new mutations, many of them vary significantly from their parents.

To create gardens that are havens for pollinators, select native perennials in their original state. Try old-fashioned flowers that Grandmother grew from seed that hasn’t changed in a century.

When you select these plants over new introductions, you can be sure they’re recognized by pollinators. That is how to plant gardens in nature’s design rather than merely collecting plants colored and shaped by man’s design that leave pollinators out of the loop.


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