How Pollinator Plants Help Us All
If you build it, they will come. No, not baseball-playing ghosts. Pollinators! Bees, butterflies, birds…the list goes on, and includes mosquitoes (they don’t all bite!), bats (who suffer from seriously bad PR), and countless other four-footed and two-winged creatures that can fight climate change. That’s right: If you want to fight climate change, find a way to attract pollinators to your garden.
Healthy soil traps carbon, which helps moderate climate change. Worried about sea level rise? Every native pollinator plant in your landscape provides a metaphorical sandbag against the rising waters. Of course, it will take plenty of pollinators to reverse things, but every purple coneflower helps.
“Eighty to ninety percent of the world’s flowering plants – which includes wildflowers, grasses, vines, shrubs, and trees – require pollination to produce the flowers, fruits, and seeds needed for the plants to reproduce. Pollinators are ensuring the preservation and continuation of those species, many of which store carbon in their leaves, stems, and roots,” says Florida Wildflower Foundation Executive Director Stacey Matrazzo.
Like anything in your garden, however, success depends on the right plant in the right place. While flowers get the lion’s share of notice in most yards, don’t discount the native grasses and trees that grow in St. Petersburg. Landscapes that embrace native grasses and plants keep the soil healthier than turfgrass or exotics. (The word “exotic” sounds fancy, but don’t let that fool you.) In North American parlance, “native” refers to a plant or animal that existed in the area beforethe first Europeans showed up and decided Old Northeast had better winters and, we can only assume, hex sidewalks that convinced them to start setting up camp.
So, what should you plant? Believe it or not, a native plant from Jacksonville or Miami could be problematic in St. Petersburg. The most reliable thing to do is check with a nursery that belongs to the Florida Association of Native Nurseries (FANN), because even in Pinellas County – the second smallest county in Florida (in terms of geography, not population), we have six different ecosystems in three different hardiness zones: beach dunes, Zone 9 and South Florida Zone; mangrove swamps, Zones 9 and 10; maritime forests, Zones 9 and 10; pine flatwoods, Zones 9 and 10; saltwater marshes, Zones 9 and 10; and sandhills, Zone 9. The ecosystem and soil near Coffeepot Bayou will differ from the ecosystem and soil near Sunken Gardens.
Toffer Ross, a landscape architect who also works as the horticulturalist for the City of Gulfport, loves one plant that works most anywhere: blanket flower.
“My favorite overall bee-attracting plant is gaillardia pulchella (blanket flower) because it’s a native that can be inserted into almost any type or style of landscape,” she says. “From formal gardens to cottage style, beach scape or highway green strips, it’s beautiful and reseeds itself in a manageable fashion.”
While we typically think of bees when we think of pollinating insects, there are many more, including everyone’s favorite, the butterfly. Butterflies are among the prettiest – and least sting-y – of pollinators. Each butterfly species has a preferred plant for egg-laying. If you want monarchs, for instance, you’ll need milkweed – although Florida wildflower experts caution against using non-native milkweed for monarchs. For advice, go to a native nursery and ask for butterflyweed (asclepias tuberosa), pink swamp milkweed (asclepias incarnata), or white swamp milkweed (asclepias perennis). There are many other plants that attract a range of butterflies, however, and any native nursery can help you find the best fit.
Pollinator gardens may require planning, but don’t fret – it sounds more complicated than it is. The Pinellas County Extension Service has an actual team of people passionate about pollinators and landscapes who can help you plan – for free. From there, you can opt to do the physical work yourself or pay a landscape architect (check with FANN for recommendations, because all landscapers are not created equal).
Remember, you don’t have to rip out your entire landscape and start over. If just reading that sentence made your palms sweat and your heart race, take a deep breath. Start with some potted plants on your steps – perhaps some purple coneflower (echinacea purpurea) for a pop of color and food for pollinators. From there, decide how big you want to go. Maybe that’s enough for you, but perhaps those lavender blooms were the gateway plant to coral bean (erythrina herbacea) near the fence, or wiregrass (Aristida stricta, var. beyrichiana) to edge the sidewalk.
After that, who knows? It might not be long before you can make your landscape look lush, subtropical, and, to the birds and the bees, a lot like dinner.
Mosquitoes Are Friends. Really!
Sure, you may not love getting bitten by a mosquito, and yes, they can spread zika, malaria, yellow fever, and probably a few other things, but did you know that mosquitoes are pollinators, too? Here are some mosquito fun facts to make you feel better about skeets.
There are more than 3,500 species of mosquito, and not all of them bite people. Blood isn’t their mainstay. Really! (Only the females bite, when they need protein for egg laying.) Most mosquitoes feed largely on nectar. As they buzz from blossom to blossom, drinking nectar, they pollinate those flowers. And some plants, like the Blunt Leaved Bog Orchid, need mosquitoes to help them survive.
Still not in love with these pollinators? You can avoid them. Don’t let standing water accumulate on your property, and if you have a water feature in your landscape, make it attractive to bugs that love the taste of mosquito larvae, like dragonflies. Just don’t spray insecticides because they don’t discriminate. They kill mosquitoes, yes, but also other much-needed pollinators who don’t want to suck your blood.
Start Your Pollinator Journey Here
Ready to add some Florida-friendly pollinator plants to your landscape? Check out these resources.
Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Program The Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Program helps you create the most symbiotic landscape possible in the space available. This free program helps weekend gardeners avoid costly – and unsightly – mistakes.
Florida Association of Native Nurseries The Florida Association of Native Nurseries can direct you to a garden center near you that can help you put those Florida-Friendly™ Landscaping principles into practice.
University of Florida/ Institue of Food and Agricultural Sciences, aka Pinellas County Extension Every county in Florida has an extension service connected with a land-grant university, a bevy of information for people, including landscaping and gardening information. While everyone has feelings about what people should do with their gardens and landscapes, by national charter these extensions offer “non-biased, research-based information,” as the extension explains on its website. 12520 Ulmerton Road, Largo. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-5 p.m. 727-582-2100
Florida Wildflower Foundation You might call it a weed, but if a rose showed up in your veggie garden, you’d call that a weed, too. The Florida Wildflower Foundation supports growing Florida wildflowers – and attracting pollinators to every landscape. They have guides to creating a pollinator pot and a plant selection guide.