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Plants for Pollinators

What Do Pollinators Like?
That was our central question as we combed through many books and online plant lists, consulted various authorities, and asked nurseries what they considered to be their top bee plants. We didn’t want plants that bees simply visit; we wanted to select plants that offered floral resources- pollen and nectar in quantities and qualities that really attracted and supported them. Nectar is composed of various sugars in differing quantities and concentrations. It acts as a fuel for bees, moths, butterflies, many beneficial insects and hummingbirds. Pollen is a food for larvae and is composed of proteins, lipids, minerals, vitamins and sterols. Wind pollinated plants pollen has low protein levels while insect pollinated plants protein can be as high as 60%. Native bees, 70% of which are solitary, not social like honey bees, provision their nests with balls of pollen. Native bees prefer native plants pollen and nectar, but will visit many exotic plants as well. We compiled the names of hundreds of plants into an Excel file and then began our selection process for The Melissa Garden. Our main sources were Dr. Gordon Frankie’s Urban Bee Gardens project, the Xerces Society , as well as many beekeeping books, old and new, nurseries as well as personal observation.

Quantity of Nectar and Quality of Pollen
Quantity of nectar and quality of pollen from flowering plants, timed throughout the year to support the seasonal needs of bees, are the key guidelines in plant selection. Native bee species emerge during portions of the season when flowers they co-evolved with are blooming. Native bees have four distinct seasons of emergence: late winter/early spring, spring, summer, and late summer/early fall. Butterflies, moths, bees, and many beneficial insects also have seasons of emergence.

We learned that bees gravitate both to their preferred plants, and to patches of the same plant; they are creatures of efficiency and don’t usually bother with single specimens, particularly honey bees. We repeated many plants throughout each garden for this purpose. Also some plants produce only pollen like poppies, while many produce both pollen and nectar. Also, poppies only offer pollen in the morning, not in the afternoon, a timed release of floral resources typical for a number of plants. We also noted that native bees gravitate to some plants like ceanothus or California lilac while honeybees rarely visit. The opposite is also true. Bees are able to smell/detect nectar with high concentrations of sugar like in California fuchsias Epilobiums which are hummingbird plants. Their constricted nectar tubes are designed to keep unwanted pollinators like bees out, yet one can see honey bees desperately trying to access it.

The Melissa Garden is comprised of two acres within a forty-acre ranch that is lush with mixed growth of native vegetation- manzanitas, bays, fir, oaks with native grassland, forbs and bulbs. Many of the native plants are very important to pollinators of all varieties. We experimented with many plants in the garden to see what the bees gravitate to, and what plants will thrive on the heavy clay, serpentine soils of the site. The plants listed below have done well for us and should for most of California as well as some other places. The Melissa garden is zone 8/9, and is near the coast. It has cool, wet winters, and summer temperatures in the 80’s to low 90’s. Fog is often present in the mornings.

Remember- compost and mulch are essential in many areas for good plant growth. We worked in a lot of compost when planting the beds and top-dress with mulch made from decomposed green waste each fall to maintain soil fertility and build structure.

Please note that while mulch is good for plants it often prevents ground nesting native bees from access to the soil. A compromise solution is to much around each plant while leaving some areas of the garden mulch free.

Current Plant List for the Melissa Garden

These are our core plants updated 2013. Please check back as we will be constantly adding to this list and annotating it with our observations. The Melissa Garden is comprised of two acres within a forty-acre ranch that is lush with mixed growth, native vegetation. There is an existing orchard of 20 trees, and many bee-friendly plants in the existing landscape around the house.

Download the latest plant list as of September 2014

Symbols Key:
B = Biennial. Grows the first year, the 2nd year flowers, often gloriously, then dies.
N = Native to California.
= Bee Favorite
= Indicates many of the genus or other cultivars are good habitat plants
HA = Hardy Annual. These are cool weather lovers. In CA they are planted in the fall to grow over the winter and bloom in the spring. When hot weather comes they die.
HHA = Half-Hardy Annuals. Can take some frost.
TA = Tender Annual. These are frost sensitive annuals. They are planted at the last frost date to grow over the summer. Some live the whole summer, others live for a more limited period, particularly if conditions are harsh, such as hot and dry.


 Bidens ferulifolia Bidens Two-feet wide, one-foot tall annual with delicate foliage that is covered with cheerful, yellow daisy flowers almost all year in a frost-free climate. Easy to grow, full sun, drought resistant. In fairly frost free areas may live 1 year or more.

 Borago officinalis Borage Blue-flowered herb that prefers cool growing conditions. Blooms in spring or early summer.

 Cerinthe purpurasceus Blue honeywort Deep blue/purple nodding blooms honeybees love.

  Cleome hasslerana Spider flower White, pink or purple blooms, seeds

  Cosmos bipinnatus Cosmos, Sensation Pink or white cosmos

  Cosmos sulphureus Cosmos, sulphur Orange cosmos to four-feet covered in small, burnt red-orange flowers, blooms slightly later and longer than the pink cosmos. Easy.

  Helianthus annuus Sunflower Single, large flowers or multi-headed. Short bloom season mid-summer. Varieties like Japanese, Italian and others have small, multiple blooms from midsummer until late summer. The Delta sunflower is a wild species that blooms for many months.

    Phacelia tanacetifolia Phacelia Late spring blooming annual to 4 feet. Fragrant, light blue flowers. A bee favorite.

   Phacelia grandiflora  A gorgeous blue Phacelia to 2 feet. Native bee favorite.

   Phacelia bolanderi Phacelia Phacelia to 14 inches with soft blue flowers in hanging bells. Likes shade and some summer water.

   Eschscholzia californica California poppy 

  Papaver rhoeas Shirley poppy 

  Papaver ssp. Greek poppy A rhoeas type poppy with scarlet blooms with black blotches at base of petals. To 16 inches.

  Madia legans Tarweed Three to four-foot tall, late summer blooming annual with lots of bright yellow daisy flowers. Has sticky foliage with a distinctive resinous smell. Grows in adverse conditions in full sun with no irrigation.

   Hemezonia congesta ssp. Tarweed Summer blooming native annual


Angelica stricta 'Purpurea' Angelica Purple foliage and pink flowers make this a striking plant.

Echium wildpretti Tower of Jewels Six to ten-feet. First year this Echium is a large rosette of leaves, second year the plant sends up a fantastic blue flowering spike to seven-feet or more in late spring/summer, then dies.


 Achillea ‘Sonoma Coast’ yarrow Selection of native yarrow with large white flowers

 Agastache aurantiaca Apricot Sunrise Apricot colored agastche to 2 feet. Hummingbirds.

 Agastache foeniculum Licorice mint Short-lived perrenial with sweet licorice tasting leaves.

 Agastache ‘Tutti Frutti’  Spectacular raspberry-pink agastache to 4 feet. Hummingbirds.

 Agastache rupestris  Long-lived agastache to 1.5 feet.

 Angelica hendersonii Angelica All angelicas are superb garden flowers and attract many insects. Some are biennials.

  Asclepias speciosa Showy milkweed Gray-foliaged plants with narrow to wide leaves from one to five feet tall, with large rounded umbels of white or pink flowers that are often fragrant. Dies to ground in winter. Blooms early summer to midsummer. Very drought resistant. Main food plant for Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Can be prone to orange aphids late in season. Many insects visit the the flowers. Bee favorite. Can spread.

 Aster lateriflorus Prince Clump forming aster to 2X2 with dark purplish, green foliage with an abundance of small pink/white flowers with reddish centers. Late summer bloomer.

 Aster lateriflorus Lady In Black Aster that forms colonies of dark purple, upright stems and has tiny, white blush pink flowers. Late summer bloomer.

 Aster Little Carlow Beautiful Aster with light blue/purple flowers to 2 feet.

 Ballota pseudodictamnus All Hallows Green Low, Mediterranean perennial similar to horehound. Species has gray, aromatic, felt-like leaves. 'All Hallows Green' has striking, rough green leaves. Blooms spring/summer.

 Calamentha nepetoides  Honeybee and many other insect favorite. Dainty white flowers to 2 feet.

 Caryopteris incana Bluebeard 3X5 perennial/shrub with dark purple flowers that encircle the stems. Blooms late summer.

 Centaurea gymnocarpa Velvet centaurea 

 Echinops bannaticus ‘Blue Glow’ Globe Thistle 2X2. Perennial with globes of metallic blue blooms. Like moderate water and good drainage.

  Epilobium California fuchsia selections and cultivars ‘Catalina,’ ‘Chaparral Silver,’ ‘Schieffelins Choice,’ many other good ones. Good drought resistant ground cover. Gophers don't eat it.

  Eriogonum fascicularis California buckwheat Evergreen, narrow, gray leaved, Buckwheat to two by two-feet with white flowers. Very drought resistant; long summer bloomer.

  Eriogonum grande rubescens California buckwheat Small red-flowered buckwheat to 1 foot.

  Eriogonum giganteum California buckwheat St. Catherine's Lace. Huge white umbrellas on a 4 feet plant.

 Eryngium tripartitum Blue sea holly Attractive blue thistle flowers that also dry well.

  Grindelia camporum Gum Plant Yellow daisy to 2 feet. Blooms all summer - tough.

  Helenium puberulum Helenium Native helenium. Grows in damp areas. Blooms early summer.

 Helenium autumnale Sneezeweed Long, late summer flowering Midwest native with daisy-like flowers with prominent disc florets and ray florets in autumn shades of orange/yellow red/brown. From two to five feet. Clump forming and dies to ground in winter. Likes moisture.

 Helianthus giganteus Giant Sunflower To 10 feet. Spectacular but can spread.

 Gaillardia ‘Oranges and Lemons’ Blanket flower All gaillardias are good bee plants.

 Gaura lindheimeri Gaura White flowers like orchids on a 2 foot plant. Tough. Full sun only.

 Lantana camara ‘Radiation’ Lantana for butterflies Not hardy, but flower covered plant.

 Lavender ‘Goodwin Creek Gray,’ ‘Grosso’ All lavendars are excellent bee plants.

 Lavandula stoechas Spanish lavender Blooms in March/April before other lavenders.

 Linaria purpurea Linaria From southern Europe. 3 ft, narrow perennial with purplish foliage and violet/lavender flowers in summer. Will reseed slightly.

 Marrubium supinum Horehound Light gray leaves and attractive pink/lavender flowers. To 1 foot.

Melissa officinalis Lemon balm Lemon secnted mint-like plant. Leaves can be made in to tea.

  Mimulus hybrids Sticky monkey flower Native monkey flower in many beautiful flowers.

 Monardella villosa ‘Russian River’ Coyote Mint Rangy perennial with rounded, aromatic leaves to about one- foot, and fuzzy heads of mauve flowers. Likes dry conditions. Stems are brittle.

 Nepeta faassini Catmint Clump-forming perennial with spreading stems with ovate leaves to one-foot high and two-feet wide; blue, mint-like flowers. Blooms spring to midsummer.

 Origanum ‘Betty Rollins‘ ornamental oregano. Super rock garden type drought resistant plant that blooms for a long period.

 Origanum ‘Herenhausen’ ornamental oregano. Like summer water. Beautiful blooms.

 Origanum ‘Kent Beauty’ ornamental oregano. Beautiful ornamental oregano.

 Origanum heraclitoticum Greek oregano Edible oregano that behaves much like mint.

  Pentsemon heterophyllus ’Margarita BOP’ Blue bedder pentstemon Spectacular deep blue flower.

 Papaver atlanticum Morocco poppy Orange poppy that blooms early summer. Seeds.

 Perovskia atriplicifolia Russian sage Upright sub-shrub with gray-white leaves and tall spikes of violet-blue flowers.

  Rosemarinus officinalis Rosemary Upright or prostrate, evergreen aromatic plants with needle-like leaves. Blooms winter through early summer. Drought, gopher, and deer resistant.

 Rudbeckia ‘Goldstrum’ Rudbeckia Spreading rudbeckia that blooms late summer.

  Salvia apiana White Sage White foliage and upright growth make this a striking plant.

  Savia brandegei Brandegee Sage Deep blue/purple blooms to 2-3 feet. Blooms early spring.

  Salvia clevelandi ‘Alan Chickering’ Bush sage to 4 feet.

  Salvia clevelandi ‘Winifred Gilman’ More dainty version of 'Alan Cickering' with dark blue flowers.

  Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’ More tender sage, likes water but with spectacular blue/purple large blooms.

  Salvia mellifera Black sage Deep olive-colored leaves.

 Salvia mellisodora Grape scented sage Tender sage to 4-5 feet. In frost-free climate blooms all year.

 Salvia ‘Purple Rain’ Another fairly tender sage that likes water. Spectacular bloom.

  Salvia sonomensis Sonoma Sage Creeping sage with gray foliage. Needs some shade.

 Salvia uliginosa Bog sage Spreading, wter-loving sage with light blue flowers.

 Scabiosa  All scabiosas are good bee and butterfly nectar plants.

 Scabiosa / Sedum telephium ’Autumn Joy’ Sedum Pale yellow scabiosa flowers on 1-2 ' carefree stems and blue/green foliage. Very easy and floriferous. Avg/low water and sun.

  Solidago californica California goldenrod Late blooming perennial with wispy, bright yellow panicle blooms to about two to three-feet. Can be slightly invasive.

 Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ eastern goldenrod Spreading late blooming bright yellow flowers.

 Suffretescens Pink Texas skullcap 

  Teucrium chamaedrys Germander Evergreen perennial to 1.5-feet with glossy, small leaves and mauve to deep purple flowers. Can be cut back in winter; blooms summer.

 Teucrium cussoni ‘Majoricum’ Groundcover Teucrium with mauve, scented flowers.

 Thymus vulgaris ‘Dot Wells’ Common thyme Common thyme to 1x2 with mauve flowers in late spring/early summer. Dependable. Needs good drainage. Sun. All thymes great honeybee plants.

 Thymus serpyllum ‘Red Creeping’ red thyme All thymes great honeybee plants.

Verbena bonariensis  Tall verbena to 3-4 feet. Cut to near ground in late summer or winter.

 Verbascum olympicum  Biennial that has a striking rosette of silvery, felt-like leaves the first year, than a spike of bright yellow flowers to four to five-feet the second year. All verbascums are good bee plants and very attractive.


 Arbutus unedo Strawberry tree Evergreen shrub to eight-feet with coarse, deep green leaves and muscular, deep brown exfoliating bark. Blooms January/February.   (Date planted: May 2011)

  Arctostaphylos Manzanita Any good. Winter blooming. Beautiful.

   Ceanothus  Any good. Beautiful blue flowers. Large shrub to groundcover.

Ceanothus 'Concha'  To 4-5 feet. Deep blue blooms. Reliable, beautiful.

 Ceanothus ‘Glorie de Versailles‘ 4X6 hybrid deciduous Ceanothus (Ceanothus x delileanus) with pale blue, fragrant blooms mid-summer and broad, oval leaves. Likes moderate moisture, well drained soil.

  Ceanothus gloriosus ‘Anchor Bay’ Low, creeping California lilac from coastal bluffs and pine forest of Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Has leathery, distinctly toothed leaves. Good, garden tolerant selection to 3 feet with deep, blue flowers. Spreads to 6 ft

  Hearstiorum Hearst ceanothus California lilac from Hearst castle area on central coast. 6'' to 1' high and 6 plus ft spread. Narrow leaves have crinkled texture. Low water use.

  Cercis occidentalis Western redbud Drought resistant graceful shrub to 6-8 feet. Blooms late March/April.

Euonymus fortunei Euonymus Shiny green leaves, evergreen. Small yellowish flowers.

  Heteromeles arbutifolia Toyon Christmas berry. Attractive white umbrella flowers and red berries in winter.

  Mahonia aquifolium (Berberis) Shiny , evergreen holly-like leaves, yellow flowers.

  Rhamnus californica Coffee berry Dense, evergreen shrub to eight-feet with green oval leaves and small yellow/chartreuse flowers; late spring/early summer; insects love.

  Rhus ovata Sugar bush Drought resistant shrub to 8-10 feet. Needs good drainage.

  Philadelphus lewesii Mock orange Very fragrant white flowers in June. Likes some shade.

 Vitex agnus-castus Chaste tree Vibrant blue/purple blooms.


Styrax japonicus   Japanese Snowdrop Tree   (Date planted: May 2011)

Malus 'Snowdrift'   Snowdrift Crabapple   (Date planted: May 2011)

(updated April 2013)

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