Shrubs for pollinators: 5 bloom-filled choices for bees and butterflies

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Pollinator gardening is powerful stuff. While natural pollinator habitat diminishes and the effects of pesticide exposure take their toll on many species of bees and butterflies, backyard gardeners are making a positive difference in the lives of these insects. Pollinator gardens, both large and small, are collectively helping to fill the void by providing nectar forage, caterpillar food, and nesting and overwintering habitat for a broad diversity of pollinating insects. Today, we’ve teamed up with First Editions® Plants to tell you about five beautiful flowering shrubs for pollinators. These pollinator-friendly shrubs are sure to add even more pollinator power to your yard and garden.

Shrubs that attract pollinators are essential for a pollinator-friendly yard. (AD)

Including shrubs in your pollinator plantings is a must, if you want to provide habitat in addition to food.

Why include shrubs in a pollinator garden

Before we introduce you to these five shrubs for pollinators, it’s important to understand why shrubs are an important addition to a pollinator garden in the first place.

While bees and butterflies forage for nectar and pollen on a broad diversity of flowering perennials and annuals, shrubs fill in several important gaps that those types of plants leave open.

  • In addition to offering a source of nectar via their flowers, the foliage of certain shrubs can also serve as a larval host plant for various butterfly and moth caterpillars.
  • They also provide year-round habitat for pollinating insects who build their tiny brood chambers or hunker down for the winter inside of hollow shrub stems.
  • While monarchs fly south for the winter, most other butterflies spend the cold months as chrysalides, eggs, or even caterpillars clinging to the branches of woody shrubs and other plants left standing for the winter.
  • It’s especially important to include shrubs in your pollinator garden if you cut your perennials down to the ground for the winter, instead of leaving them stand (which is one of the best things you can do for pollinators).

For these reasons and more, pollinator-friendly shrubs should be included in every list of pollinator plants, no matter which gardening zone you call home.

Selecting pollinator-friendly shrubs

There are hundreds of blooming shrubs whose flowers are relished by pollinators, but not all of them are suited to the average yard. Some grow too large, or they produce messy berries, or their blooms don’t have enough impact for most homeowners. When selecting shrubs for pollinators, it’s of primary importance to consider which pollinators they support, but it’s also important to know the plants will perform well in your landscape.

The following five shrubs for pollinators are not just packed with pollinator fuel in the form of food and habitat, they’re also gorgeous garden specimens, suited to both the back and the front yard. In fact, they make wonderful additions not just to pollinator gardens, but also to foundation plantings, shrub islands, front walks, and perennial borders, too.

Selecting shrubs for pollinators is important to a healthy garden. (AD)

Pollinator-friendly shrubs can be used in foundation plantings, along walkways, or in shrub island plantings.

5 Flowering shrubs for pollinators

1. Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius):
Ninebark is a lovely flowering shrub native to eastern North American. But, as a straight species, ninebark grows too large for most yards. That’s where cultivars like Amber Jubilee™ come into play. Selected for its more compact size (five feet tall by four feet wide), its hardiness (it shrugs off temps as low as -50 degrees F!), its tolerance of lousy soils, and its striking orange and gold foliage, this variety is a pollinator gardener’s dream. Clusters of white flowers top the stems in both spring and fall. In addition to providing nectar and pollen to various species of bees and butterflies, ninebark is also a host plant for several moth caterpillars, including the amazing unicorn caterpillar (Schizura unicornis).

The best shrubs for pollinator gardens. (AD)

Amber Jubilee™ ninebark’s flower clusters are a welcome sight to bees and butterflies.

2. Blue Mist Shrub (Caryopteris x clandonensis):
In bloom from late summer through fall, caryopteris is one of the most striking shrubs for pollinators. Sapphire Surf™ is a very low maintenance, compact variety that reaches just two feet tall and three feet wide, about half the size of most other varieties. The clusters of rich blue flowers absolutely smother the plant’s gray-blue foliage during peak bloom time. It’s hardy in zones 5 to 9, and it’s adored by bees, butterflies, and people in equal measure. The only care it requires is a hard pruning in early spring (that means late March in my Pennsylvania garden).

Pollinator-friendly shrubs for your garden. (AD)

Sapphire Surf™ produces deep blue flowers in the summer that are adored by bumble bees.

3. Shrubby Cinquefoli (Potentilla fruticosa):
When it comes to shrubs for pollinators, cinquefoil has so much to offer. Not only is it native to parts of the U.S. and Canada, it’s also known to support a broad diversity of beneficial predatory insects that help manage pests in the garden. Basically, it’s a pollinator-friendly shrub that takes its job very seriously! In full flower all summer long (with an occasional shearing of the spent flower clusters), Creme Brule™ is a cultivar of our North American native cinquefoil that produces half-inch-wide, white flowers in large groups, speckling the dark green foliage with blooms for months. Hardy to -50 degrees F, Creme Brule™ cinquefoil is a shrub for pollinators that tops out at 3 feet tall with an equal width.

Potentilla is one of several great shrubs for pollinators to include in the garden. (AD)

Potentilla Creme Brûlée™ produces 1/2 inch wide, white flowers all season long with nothing more than an occasional shearing.

4. Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus):
Admittedly, I have mixed feelings about rose of Sharon shrubs, due to the fact that they tend to throw a lot of seeds and can grow quite weedy. But, when it comes to their pollinator prowess, there’s no arguing that these summer-blooming shrubs provide a plethora of pollen and nectar to several species of bees. As evidenced by the photo below of a variety called Bali™, your view of the open blossoms often includes a bee butt or two. I’ve learned to prune my rose of Sharon immediately after it blooms, to remove as many of the seeds as possible and allow the plant to generate new growth to support next year’s blooms. Bali™ is a particularly attractive selection with four-inch-wide blooms that are pure white with a fuchsia center. They top out at just five to eight feet tall and survive the winter down to -20 degrees F.

Pollinator garden plants come in all shapes and sizes, but shrubs are among the most important. (AD)

Bali™ rose of Sharon’s blooms are visited by a bumble bee that dove head-first into the flower in search of nectar.

5. Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis):
Oh how pollinators love buttonbush! But, the straight species of this North American native shrub can grow quite large. Fiber Optics® is a more compact selection that reaches only six feet in height, instead of 10 or more. Buttonbush loves moist to average garden soils; it even tolerates spring floods and streamside planting with grace. The white, golf-ball shaped flower clusters appear in early summer and are covered in many nectar-seeking bees, beetles, wasps, and butterflies for weeks on end. Winter hardy to -30 degrees F, buttonbush is also a host plant for 18 different species of moth caterpillars here in Pennsylvania, including several sphinx moths.

You can't beat these 5 shrubs for pollinators when it comes to supporting bees and butterflies in your garden. (AD)

Buttonbush blooms are alive with pollinator activity in the summertime. Bees, beetles, and butterflies fight over the nectar found in them.

As you can see, there are many beautiful shrubs for pollinators that don’t just help you create a pretty landscape, they also serve a greater purpose by providing food and habitat to many different species of bees and butterflies.

A big thank you to First Editions® Plants for sponsoring this post and helping us share the many benefits of these important flowering shrubs for pollinators. To find a nursery near you that carries the varieties featured above, please visit the ‘Find a Retailer’ feature on the First Editions® website.

Do you have a pollinator garden? Tell us about some of your favorite pollinator-friendly plants in the comment section below. 

Pin it! The best shrubs for pollinators offer both food and habitat for these beneficial insects. Meet 5 great choices for your garden. (AD)


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8 Responses to Shrubs for pollinators: 5 bloom-filled choices for bees and butterflies

  1. Frank Mosher says:

    Under your section entitled: Selecting Pollinator-friendly shrubs, what are the beautiful blue unidentified flowers? thank you.

  2. Amy Halvorson Miller says:

    I have potentilla, Russian sage, daphne and Caryopteris (mine’s named Bluebeard) which insects love. Do other types of ninebark from First Editions also provide pollen and nectar? It isn’t clear from plant tags and I find nursery staff are not generally knowledgeable on this. If I shop on a sunny day, I can hang out and watch which plants attract insects. Also, the “find a retailer” tool indicated none in my area, but I have seen some of their plants at one nearby nursery.

  3. Dear Savvy Gardeners,

    I have been adding native plants to my gardens for a few years now and want to continue. My goal is to make the perennials almost exclusively plants native to Nova Scotia and especially Halifax to benefit pollinators with which they have long-evolved relationships. But I sometimes see references to cultivars of native plants. What does this mean? What does it mean to include them, or should I relax a bit more about this? I won’t likely ever replace the German irises and daylilies or the rhodos, pieris, and holly. I have planted hepatica, native blueberries, Arcturus, and native ferns.

    Love your ideas and advice!

    • HI Nicole – Ahhhh, what a can of worms you’ve opened. LOL! Cultivars are named varieties of plants that have either been bred or selected for a special trait. They may have a different bloom color, a different height, a different leaf form, or some other physical attribute that makes them different from the straight species of that particular plant. There’s much debate and conversation occurring in the industry right now about whether or not cultivars of native plants (sometimes called nativars) are as fit for supporting native pollinators and other wildlife as the straight species of plants are. There’s a lot of current research taking place on this very topic. It’s really something you’ll need to research yourself and formulate your own opinion on the topic until all the research comes in. There are many gardeners who will plant only the straight species of native plants in their gardens, while others are more relaxed and include nativars in their gardens without questioning their fitness. What we do know for certain is that native plants and native insects have coevolved for tens of thousands of years together, so there’s no doubt that it’s a good thing to include native plants in your landscape. It’s the cultivars that remain in question.

  4. Natalie Henderson says:

    I recently picked up Symphorocarpus Candy at one of my suppliers…the other S. bushes attract bees galore. Do you know if this does as well?

    • Coralberries do attract pollinators. But, I can’t speak from experience regarding Candy™ as I’ve not grown that one myself. From what I can find online, however, it’s noted as being attractive to pollinators. Let us know if you find it to be as bee-filled as your other coralberries.

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