Pollinators and the power of flowers


A monarch butterfly on a tithonia blossom in Deb Soule’s garden. ( Deb Soule)
Contributor August 20

Each sunflower I pick is full of bees, sometimes eight or 10 per blossom. Most are still and quiet, as if sleeping off a sweet meal. Before I bring the flowers indoors, I flick each bee off with my finger, to fly in search of more nectar.

This year I’m growing and selling lots of bouquets locally. Flowers are just a sideline for our vegetable business, but they serve another purpose as well. Our melons, cucumbers, squash and other fruiting crops never lack for the pollinators they need for an abundant harvest, and picking flowers gives me a good view of their numbers.

Barbara Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.” View Archive

The catmint (which blooms all summer), lavender, shasta daisies, salvia and many others are always full of bees, butterflies and other helpers. Rarely does any insect damage them, although some are mysterious. For instance, the snapdragons are full of tiny, glossy, black beetles that hide inside their cave-like petals. They’re always locked in pairs, even while moving. After consulting my old 1951 beetle guide (“How to Know the Beetles,” by H.E. Jaques) I’ve decided they are Stilbus apicalis , a species of shining flower beetle, and they’re just living and mating in the snapdragons. Be my guest, I tell them.

Recently I compared notes with my friend Deb Soule, author of the book “How to Move Like a Gardener.” At her farm in West Rockport, Maine, Deb grows plants that are hand-processed and go into the tinctures of her Avena Botanicals. Visitors can stroll the lush flower gardens during open hours or workshops.

She, too, values catmint, not only for its use in herbal teas, but for its bee-attracting powers. Also, it’s ready and blooming when the ruby-throated hummingbird (another important pollinator) arrives in early summer. Butterflies and bees alike flock to her echinacea, used to make a mild immune-system stimulant, and to lavender, which helps treat respiratory infections and poor digestion. Deb and I both grow joe-pye weed, a giant purple-flowered native, named (the story goes) for an Indian herbalist in Massachusetts who passed his wisdom on to settlers. The plant is also called gravel root, for its use in treating kidney stones.

Among Deb’s bee-attracting favorites are anise hyssop, bee balm, black cohosh, borage and feverfew. Bee balm is also on her hummingbird list, along with cardinal flower, evening primrose, marsh mallow, lungwort and Solomon’s seal.

People grow flowers for many reasons, including their beauty. Those concerned about the fate of bees are especially inclined to plant them and to avoid toxic sprays that could harm any pollinators that visit. Possible causes of colony collapse disorder in bees include both pesticides and loss of habitat, so a poison-free yard bursting with blooms makes a double contribution to this cause. The same goes for monarch butterflies, whose numbers have declined in recent years.

One plant that Deb especially loves is tithonia, also called Mexican sunflower. Its gorgeous flowers are somewhere between bright scarlet and deep orange. “I love tithonia, too,” I told her, “but it doesn’t work in bouquets. It’s droopy and fragile. Is it medicinal?” “No,” she replied. “It’s not good for anything, but I plant whole hedgerows of it because the monarch butterflies, ruby-throated hummingbirds and native bees all love it.” Reason enough, I’d say.

Tip of the week

Removing fading flowers — dead-heading — will drastically improve the groomed look of a plant, prevent seediness and often promote reblooming. Use hand pruners to remove the flower back to a set of healthy leaves or take off entire stalks, depending on the flower structure. Wear thick gloves when dead-heading roses. — Adrian Higgins

Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

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