I am a pollinator habitat specialist, which means that I plant a lot of plants. In my 15 years of growing native plants in nurseries and restoring habitats in national parks, college campuses, home gardens and farms, I estimate that I have personally grown or planted over 90,000 native plants and facilitated the planting of over 260,000.
When you’ve had your hands on so many baby plants, it’s easy to get bored with some of them. If you’re like me, you might have thoughts like,
“It’s just another willow, whatever,” or,
“Buckwheat, again?” or,
“Yeah, yeah, redbud, I get it. You’re pretty.”
Since joining Xerces in 2020, I’ve come to reappreciate some of these species that are so ubiquitous they can be easily overlooked. My job is to help growers establish pollinator habitats in some of the highest intensity agricultural regions in the world, and I’m so grateful to these landowners who take the time and money to help critical plants and animals rebound in our shared agroecosystems.
When land prices are so high and the climate so harsh, the pressure is on, and native plants have to perform just like the rest of us. This is especially true for plants on Bee Better Certified farms, whose operations rely on the contributions of native habitats.
Here are a few native plants that get the job done even in the most challenging situations. While the species below are all native to California, the reasons for selecting them apply to any native plant habitat project.
Coyote Bush, Baccharis pilularis, AKA “That Shrub I See Everywhere”
If you live in California and you look to the hills, there’s a good chance it’s coyote bush that you see. This shrub is so prolific and able, that I’ve had to remove it from native grass habitats just to keep them from getting overrun in the absence of natural fire cycles. So why do I recommend coyote bush?
- It blooms! Late! Crops may be harvested and wildflowers may be senescing, but coyote bush will still thrum with life late into the fall and early winter.
- It hosts predators of crop pests. These include parasitoid wasps Anagrus spp., which overwinter on coyote bush. These parasitoids help provide critical control of Western grape leafhoppers.
- It’s tough. Coyote bush can tolerate a lot of mistreatment and a variety of soil, light and moisture conditions. It also grows pretty quickly, creating habitat structure and erosion control for its slower-growing native companions.
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, AKA “That Sticky Green Plant”
You will surely recognize the many nativars (cultivated native plants) of yarrow available in commercial nurseries, but nothing compares to the real thing. If you want to support native insects, do your best to find wild yarrow from native plant nurseries. Yarrow plants grown from wild seeds will contain the whole genetic suite needed to build resilience into future yarrow populations as they adapt to a changing climate. Moreover, nativars do not always support native pollinators due to the artificial changes caused by breeding. Why do I recommend yarrow?
- It blooms! For a long time! Yarrow starts blooming in late spring and will keep going well into the summer as long as it has water.
- It hosts predators of crop pests. Along with native pollinators, yarrow attracts parasitoid wasps, syrphid flies and lady beetles. Got an aphid problem? Plant yarrow and draw in lady beetles, who eat up to 50 aphids a day!
- It’s easy (and you can mow it!) Yarrow establishes well and can colonize an area on its own through its underground runners, called rhizomes. This makes it a great plant for areas that need to get mowed or for outcompeting weeds in hedgerows. Yarrow is so reliable that, in some parts of the country, it can overtake an area with enough water resources. If you strive for a diverse stand of wildflowers, keep the proportion of yarrow seed fairly low in high-moisture areas.
Deergrass, Muhlenbergia rigens, AKA “That Big Bunchgrass”
Native grassland habitats have been lost or degraded at an alarming rate, which is very bad for the invertebrates that rely on them. The reasons for this are myriad, but one is their seasonal handicap in competition with invasive Mediterranean grasses in California. Those grasses come up early and strong, sucking up the little bit of moisture that is in the arid soil, leaving the late emerging native bunch grasses struggling to germinate and grow. So why does deergrass make the cut?
- It’s nice and big. Deergrass is one of the few native grasses that has a size and strength advantage. Once established, deergrass is big and beautiful, withstanding the invasion of its non-native competitors.
- It has roots. You’re right, all plants do have roots (except bryophytes). But native grasses have fibrous roots that work wonders for soil health by going extra deep and regularly breaking down, building layer upon layer of organic matter.
- It provides nesting ground for bumble bees. While grasses don’t provide the same abundance of food resources that wildflowers and flowering shrubs provide to pollinators, some bumble bees use the thatch-covered cavities under bunch grasses to nest!
For many more native plants that have been vetted for your region by Xerces Society, check out the Pollinator Conservation Resource Center. When you’re ready to plant, consider talking with your nursery about bee-safe plants, and always remember to provide native flowers for pollinators all year long!