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GROW: 3 Ways to Support Pollinators

GROW: 3 Ways to Support Pollinators

GUEST WRITER: One of the many hats that Dan Richardson wears is VP of Suksdorfia Chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society. I serve as the newsletter editor for our local chapter and Dan recently submitted this lovely article for a recent edition. I was thrilled when he agreed to let me post it here.  Lots of good information including 3 simple ways for gardeners and homeowners to do.  He also included a list of resources.  Enjoy!

Last year, in late summer, a monarch stopped by. A monarch butterfly landed at my suburban east-end Columbia Gorge home and zeroed in on the single milkweed growing there. The butterfly danced amid the pink flower clusters for some long minutes seeming to drink deep, flitting, landing, drinking, then vanishing, on its long, long inter-generational journey.


The lovely monarchs need the humble milkweed, a native perennial with tall stems and clusters of lovely, complex little flowers. Mine is growing out of a seed that parachuted in on its long silky seed hairs. The plant’s numerous stems now sprout from under a fence, in gravelly, unwatered soil – a survivor who thrives in its near-desert habitat.

Milkweed seeds on silky seed hairs

Milkweed seeds on silky seed hairs


And like all our native plants, it also creates habitat. For milkweeds, marginalized and under-appreciated – they’re called “weeds”! [1] – are critical to monarch butterflies. The monarch’s caterpillar feeds on milkweed exclusively. The adults, like the one visiting mine once upon a Saturday, drink the nectar (along with other plants’ nectar) as fuel. [2]

Monarch caterpillar

Monarch caterpillar

I was fortunate to glimpse the butterfly and its plant in action. We don’t see that many around here. Probably because there aren’t that many native plants in my neighborhood, amid the roses and Scotch pines and square lawns of Kentucky bluegrass. Native plants, of course, are well-adapted to this place, as to all places. They generally use less water than our much-coddled garden plants (my milkweed asks for nothing and receives only what falls from the sky), and need less care. Many are beautiful shrubs: Have you seen a mock-orange in its full bloom?

Mock-orange ( Phiadelphus lewisii ) Large, woody spreading shrub that grows in moist woods, conifer forests, canyons throughout western North America. Named after Meriwether Lewis.

Mock-orange (Phiadelphus lewisii) Large, woody spreading shrub that grows in moist woods, conifer forests, canyons throughout western North America. Named after Meriwether Lewis.

Native plants in every area of the Northwest co-evolved with dozens, scores, of wild pollinators. Butterflies, yes, along with a menagerie of bees large and small, moths, wasps, beetles, hummingbirds – what Oregon State University’s statewide Master Gardener coordinator Gail Langellotto has called the host of “winged wonders.” 

Goldenrod ( Solidago canadensis)  & pollinator

Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) & pollinator

The pollinators are in trouble. The non-native honey bee is staggering from colony collapse disorder, but native bees and others are also declining from habitat loss and fragmentation and widespread pesticide use everywhere from gardens to road edges to orchards. [3]


What is a gardener or homeowner to do? One might argue that a single milkweed and a single monarch visiting it doesn’t represent the true habitat needs for wild pollinators. One would be correct. A critic might say a whole yard full of native plants won’t reverse landscape-scale impacts on pollinator populations. Also true. [4]

But a person – yes, I’m looking at you – can start with a yard, a plot, a wild edge of untended land, cultivate a native plant population there, then expand outward by gently educating neighbors, friends, other gardeners. There’s a moral case to be made that we should be asking “What can we give to the land?” along with the more-common question “What can we get from it?” There’s also a practical case for supporting biodiversity locally: It’s what one person can do. Plant a bank of native flowers in a yard, say; or a hedgerow of native shrubs along a fence; replace a tract of laurel bushes from Home Depot with a mix of serviceberry, mock-orange and red-flowering currant; or tuck in blanket-flower and milkweed along that neglected strip behind the church parking lot. One little project probably means little on the landscape – but they can add up. [5]

Blanket Flower ( Gaillardia aristata )

Blanket Flower (Gaillardia aristata)

Red Columbine ( Aquilegia formosa)

Red Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

At bottom, at the base of every food-web and the foundation of natural wealth, it’s all about the plants.
— Dan Richardson

Besides a project (your project, right?), incorporating native plants into our landscapes and wild edges is an awareness, an appreciation for the interacting gears of our ecosystem. At bottom, at the base of every food-web and the foundation of natural wealth, it’s all about the plants. [6]  We can, if nothing else, include Nootka rose, Oregon sunshine, native red columbine among our roses and mums. Pollinators may visit exotic garden plants, may even use some, but their best nutrition, sometimes their only nutrition, comes from the plants they’ve known for many hundreds of generations, the natives.

Native Rose ( Rosa spp .) & pollinators

Native Rose (Rosa spp.) & pollinators

Plants and their interactions are complex. But the general ideas of adding pollinator-friendly landscapes are pretty straight-forward. Here are the basics you’ll find recommended by various agencies and conservation groups:

Three Ways to Support Pollinators

ONE:  Plant clusters, bunches, areas of a native plant, rather than a single specimen.  This might be easier said than done, at first. I confess that I’ve not quite gotten there myself. I think there’s room for a second golden currant in the back corner of my property; and definitely space for a few more snowberries behind the compost pile.

TWO:  Plant a diversity of species – shrubs, forbs, grasses – for habitat structure and, critically, for three seasons of blooming. Pollinators need things to visit in the spring, the summer and the fall. Early-season bloomers (willows, Oregon grape) are especially important. And while native plants are best for native pollinators, a yard with an abundance of diverse plants is a thing of beauty and support for them. Many herbs and vegetables provide useful diversity for beneficial insects, from the mints and lavenders to oregano, rosemary, Russian sage and cosmos.

Anise Hyssop ( Agastache foeniculum)  A lovely herb in the garden helps sustain pollinators.

Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) A lovely herb in the garden helps sustain pollinators.

THREE: Ease off the pesticides. Native plants generally don’t need us to protect them from the various arthropods that feed, breed and live on them. And really, aren’t poisons the antithesis to the gardener’s art? If you must spray something, minimize your use, read the label carefully (and follow it), and apply the chemicals at dusk, when pollinators are likely to be sleeping, and not feeding on the stuff.

Native plants generally don’t need us to protect them from the various arthropods that feed, breed and live on them. And really, aren’t poisons the antithesis to the gardener’s art?
— Dan Richardson


To sum up, I think of these recommendations as the “Suggestion of Threes”:

  • At least three different species, with at least three plants each,

  • Ideally blooming over three seasons;

  • Ease off the pesticides.

Awareness is the start, but we must pair it with action. For my own yard, I’ve not lived up to this suggestion of threes, not yet. But winter is a great time to draw up plans. There’s plenty of room in the gravelly area under my fence for a few more milkweeds…

Milkweed ( Asclepias speciosa )

Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)


There are many useful resources supporting pollinator gardening AKA wildlife gardening. [7] 

A number of allied agriculture, forest and conservation agencies under the umbrella of the Pollinator Partnership has published a booklet, “Selecting Plants for Pollinators (In the Pacific Lowland Mixed Forest Province),” available online HERE

Washington State University publishes the online booklet “Landscaping with Native Plants in the Inland Northwest,” which focuses on east-side communities and plants. That can be found online HERE.

The Xerces Society, which conducts primary research and acts in coordination with the National Resources and Conservation Service and other agencies, publishes books and papers: check out

Russell Link’s book Landscaping for Wildlife is a classic for anyone in the Northwest interested in such things – and its layout and design illustrations make it a pleasure to leaf through for ideas.  You can find it HERE.

Jurgen Hess, of Hood River, has published Landscaping With Natives: Columbia Gorge, which in addition to solid advice and beautiful pictures, has listed additional resources. Timber Press in Portland continues to bring forth challenging, thoughtful books on the subject, too. [ii]

I find this online yard-design page interactive and fun – highly recommended: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s site Landscape Design for Wildlife (a distillation of Link’s work:

For straight-up inspiration, and help sourcing locally adapted native plants, my go-to source is Humble Roots Nursery in Mosier ( Their site has a gorgeous gallery of native shrubs, forbs, grasses and trees. Go there and be inspired!

Conservation Districts around the Northwest host annual native plant sales where residents can obtain low-cost seedlings from a diverse range of species. Information about Underwood Conservation District’s sale is available at the District’s web site (, or here:


[1] A narrow-leaf milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis, to be precise. But can we stop calling them milkweeds? They are native plants, blossoming in the central and eastern Columbia Gorge in their native habitat. They are weedy looking, sure, but they are harmless and non-invasive. Given their critical role for butterflies, particularly monarchs, can we call them monarch plants instead?

[2] The Monarch Joint Venture website  is a one-stop site for those wanting to read more about the monarch’s biology, its incredible journey, and some efforts at conservation. On the West Coast, probably the Xerces Society is the most active conservation group in support of monarchs -- -- and other invertebrates.

[3] The literature on colony collapse disorder is extensive, and the appreciation of blights on our native pollinator populations is growing. The two sometimes intertwine. For brief introductions to native pollinator issues, see:


  • and

[4] To dig into the literature critically, one could start with and follow the literature highlighted there, and also take up one of the most current, standard texts from the Xerces Society: Attracting Native Pollinators. A copy is available at most libraries.

[5] If you click on one link in these footnotes, make it this one. A couple of books make the thoughtful case for yard-by-yard habitat efforts, including Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy.

Tallamy condenses his case for biodiversity at our homes and gardens in a readable, powerful essay here:

[6] Some would correct me here and say it’s all about the soil. They are right to do so. But soil’s vital ecosystem services (carbon storage, etc.) are intimately intertwined with plants and their co-dependent life forms. Yes, plants need mycorrhizae and other soil-borne organisms; but those lifeforms needs plants and their carbon-capturing, sugar-producing link to the sun. It’s a case of and, not either-or.

[7] I say pollinator gardening and mention pollinators as vitally important. Pollinators are not the only things interacting with plants, of course; but to take a sub-set like butterflies or wild bees, that’s a useful focal taxa in helping us dig into the details of native plants and interactions on the human landscape. Pollinators need the same thing as other wildlife. And if we are to have more than omnivores and generalist species – the deer that eat your lilies, the raccoons that raid your dog food, the ear-wigs that hide in your roses unless you douse them with poisons that kill all many of beneficial insects – we need native plants.

[8] Such as Planting in a Post-Wild Word by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. See

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