Six Bushes to Plant if you want lots of Bees, Butterflies, Hummingbirds and Beneficial Insects
If you read my post on Beneficial Predatory Insects, you know that there are lots of beneficials winging their way around your garden that aren’t butterflies and bees.
But, it’s often true that plants that attract butterflies and bees will also attract many of the other, not-so-pretty or popular beneficials you also want. And hey, you want butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and birds too, right?
In today’s post, I’m going to cover six shrubs or bushes you can plant to attract loads of beneficials to your garden. You’ll learn where they grow best and how to care for them to maximize their usefulness, both for your pleasure and the insects and birds in your garden.
As a bonus, five of the six are native plants in at least parts of North America. Let’s get started!
Shrubby St. John’s wort (Hypericum prolificum)
Shrubby St. John’s wort is a pretty bush with lovely bright yellow flowers that appear in June through September, depending on growing region. The shrub grows to about 5 feet tall. It’s native to Central and Eastern North America and is deer and drought-resistant. In fact, the foliage contains a toxin that affects animals, so they won’t eat it.
You may have heard that you can’t plant anything near a black walnut tree as they’re allelopathic. Allelopathy is a fancy term that means the plant gives off a toxin from its roots that damages other plants trying to grow in its vicinity. However, shrubby St. John’s wort isn’t affected by this allelopathy and can be planted close to or under black walnut trees.
Best Growing Conditions for Hypericum prolificum
Shrubby St. John’s wort does best in full sun to part shade conditions, and likes average soil moisture levels. It’s hardy in zones 3 through 8 and blooms on new growth. What this means for our cold weather friends is that, even if there’s a harsh winter, the shrub will still bloom, as buds don’t form until later in the season when the weather has warmed.
Shrubby St. John’s wort can be susceptible to root rot and wilt in hot, humid conditions.
Value to Pollinators
The flowers of this shrub don’t contain nectar, but bumblebees love the pollen, as do syrphid flies and Halictid bees.
Just in case you don’t know (I didn’t!), syrphid flies are hoverflies that look like tiny little bees. The more familiar name for a Halictid bee is a sweat bee. These are the small, often metallic-looking bees that are apparently even more abundant than honeybees. Who knew?
If you’d like to buy this plant, you can get seeds at Prairie Moon Nursery here. The plants themselves seem to be out of stock at various retailers.
This post contains affiliate links. When you make a purchase through one of these links, I receive a small commission. This does not affect your purchase price.
New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)
New Jersey Tea is a small shrub, often just 3 feet tall, with clusters of tiny white flowers that emerge in May through July. It’s native to much of the east and central US and Canada and can grow in Zones 4 through 9. If you’d like to see a picture of one, you can find it here.
Fun fact: The dried leaves of New Jersey Tea can, in fact, be used to make tea (although they don’t contain caffeine). Colonists used it as a tea substitute after tea became scarce following the Boston Tea Party and associated issues.
Although New Jersey tea is also resistant to the allelopathic compounds in black walnut, it is, unfortunately, attractive to deer. If you live in an area with heavy deer pressure, this shrub may not be the one for you.
This shrub has very deep roots, meaning it’s drought-tolerant. However, this also means you aren’t going to want to move it once you plant it, so be sure you like its location when you plant.
You’ll also need to be patient: Because it’s going to spend the first couple of years growing those long roots, you won’t see a lot of activity on top of the soil. Give it time, though, and it will grow into a lovely small shrub. If you’re interested in purchasing one or more for your garden, you can order them here.
Best Growing Conditions for New Jersey Tea
The New Jersey Tea is, as mentioned above, drought-tolerant due to its deep root system. This also makes it a good choice for slopes that are prone to erosion.
This shrub is also unusual because, although it’s not a legume, it is a nitrogen fixer, so poor soils aren’t a problem for it. It likes sun to partial shade (some sources say it will tolerate full shade as well) and relatively neutral soil pH.
New Jersey Tea can have issues with leaf spot and powdery mildew.
Value of New Jersey Tea to pollinators
New Jersey Tea is both a host plant for caterpillars and a nectar source for bees and butterflies.
It’s a host plant for the Spring Azure, Summer Azure and Mottled Duskywing caterpillars. Unfortunately, the Mottled Duskywing is endangered and is thought to be extinct in the State of CT (where I live).
Certain species of Spring Azure are also of special concern to conservationists (they are essentially endangered), so I think planting a few New Jersey Teas in their native range (most of the Eastern US) is an especially good idea to help support them.
Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)
Who doesn’t love pussy willows? Those soft catkins are some of the first harbingers of spring, and they’re just irresistible to the touch. Even the hummingbirds love them, they can use the soft “fur” to line their nests!
Pussy willows can get a bit bigger than some of the other bushes I’m discussing here, with some varieties getting up to 20 feet tall. The good news is that they tolerate pruning very well, so you can easily keep them the size you prefer.
Best Growing Conditions for Pussy Willows
As with most other shrubs, full sun to partial shade makes them happy, as does relatively neutral soil pH. They grow in Zones 4-8 and do prefer damp to wet soil, as they’re native to North American wetlands. Don’t expect them to make it through a drought without supplemental watering.
Unfortunately, pussy willows aren’t deer-resistant, so this may be a consideration if you have lots of deer in your area.
Potential Issues and Diseases
Pussy willow roots can be invasive, so be sure to keep them far away from septic, sewer or well lines.
As with all willows, the wood can be weak and they’re prone to breakage during winter storms or high winds, so it’s probably best to keep them away from houses and sheds as well.
These bushes can be bothered by powdery mildew, blights, leaf spots, scab and cankers. However, my parents had a couple in a swampy area in back of their house for many, many years and they never had any problems with them. Giving them the rich, moist soil they need probably goes a long way towards keeping diseases at bay.
Pussy Willows are Very Important to Pollinators
Given that pussy willows bloom in March and April, they’re often the first nectar source for pollinators. They’re also the host plant for the Viceroy and Mourning Cloak butterflies.
As mentioned, hummingbirds and other birds will often mine the fuzz for use in lining their nests.
Pussy willows may be purchased here, although this retailer cannot ship them to Connecticut (BOO!!!)
Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens)
It seems like someone could have come up with a better name for such a pretty little bush. At only 3 feet tall, its blooms resemble those of a butterfly bush, and its leaves resemble a pea plant. Of course, it is a legume, so I guess that makes sense!
Best Growing Conditions for Lead Plant
As mentioned, the Lead Plant is a legume, so it fixes nitrogen in the soil. This gives it the advantage of being able to grow in poorer soils than some of the other bushes I’ve talked about here. It’s also got very deep roots, meaning that, once established, it will be quite drought-tolerant. Again, though, given its deep root system, trying to move it once it’s established isn’t a good idea.
The Lead Plant is native to the central US and Canada and can grow in zones 2 through 9. It grows best in full sun to partial shade and blooms July to September. As mentioned, the flowers are very attractive, resembling the flowers of the butterfly bush.
In harsh winters (I would imagine particularly in the northernmost part of its range), it’ll die back to the ground, but will regrow come spring.
There seems to be some disagreement as to whether or not Lead Plant is deer-resistant. Some authorities say yes, some say no. It does appear that deer like the berries, but I really can’t speak to whether or not they’ll damage the foliage.
They can be susceptible to leaf spots, powdery mildew, rust and canker.
Importance to Pollinators
The Lead Plant’s very attractive flowers attract bees, butterflies, moths, beetles and other beneficial insects. They’re especially important as a pollen source for native bees, particularly sweat bees, small carpenter bees and bumblebees.
You can find Lead Plant seeds and potted plants here, if you’d like to purchase them.
Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)
There are actually quite a few species and varieties of Snowberry, with var. laevigatus being native to the West, and S. albus being native in the East. Coralberry (S. abiculatus) is also related to Snowberry. They’re all in the honeysuckle family. All in all, they’re native to a good portion of the US and Canada with the exception of the extreme southern states.
Best Growing Conditions for Snowberry
The Snowberry can be grown in full sun to partial shade, with some authorities saying it will also succeed in full shade. It grows in Zones 3 through 7, with plants blooming in May through July. The small white flowers are pretty (although they apparently don’t smell good!), but it’s the striking white berries that appear later for which the bush is named.
Snowberries can get up to about six feet tall, and thankfully, they are deer-resistant.
Snowberry can be plagued by anthracnose, rust, berry rot and powdery mildew.
Pollinators love Snowberries!
Although the berries are mildly toxic to humans, multiple birds, including grosbeak, grouse, thrushes and robins, love them.
Note: Don’t worry about planting them in your yard, the toxins (saponins) in the berries are very poorly absorbed in the body and pass through without doing harm unless eaten in huge quantities. As saponins are quite bitter, I don’t think anyone (human or animal) would ever eat enough to get sick.
Hummingbirds and bees love snowberries, and they’re host plants for the Clearwing moth and Vashti sphinx moth caterpillars. The bushes also provide good cover for birds and small animals.
Here they are for sale, if you’re interested.
Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii)
Last but not least, butterfly bush. Now, don’t start yelling yet, let me explain. I know butterfly bushes aren’t native, and I know they’re invasive in certain parts of the country, but I’m still including them.
Here’s why: Butterfly bushes have absolutely beautiful, delightfully fragrant flowers. Go outside on a warm summer day and stand by a butterfly bush and you’ll see more butterflies and sphinx moths (“humming bugs”) than on most other plants in your yard. Plus, they’re just lovely to look at, and you need to enjoy your garden too, amiright?
BUT, and yes, there is a BIG BUT (actually there are two): One, you should consider buying a sterile variety. These are bushes that won’t produce seed, and thus, cannot become invasive. There are lots of sterile varieties on the market now, the Lo & Behold series from Proven Winners being one. You can also check out portlandnursery.com for a nice selection of sterile varieties.
The second BIG BUT: Don’t JUST grow butterfly bushes for pollinators. They aren’t a host plant (not being native to the US) for any of our pollinator caterpillars, but only provide nectar for the adult butterflies and moths. Thus, you need to grow plants that support the rest of the pollinator life cycle as well.
Best Growing Conditions for Butterfly Bush
Although considered hardy in Zones 5 through 10, I’ve found that here in Zone 6b, a hard winter really damages (sometimes kills) my butterfly bushes. They just don’t seem able to take the colder temperatures.
At least for me, they don’t seem to be very long-lived either. I get 5-8 years from them and then they start to weaken and need to be replaced. As I only have a few, it’s no big deal, but it might be something to think about.
They need full sun, and are considered deer-resistant. I have quite a few deer that visit my yard and I’ve never had any damage to my butterfly bushes.
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