Modern life has sped up and now not only must we humans multi-task, but so must our landscapes and gardens. We aren’t just growing a vegetable or flower garden anymore. Now gardens have multiple purposes like supporting pollinators, engaging children, providing supplies to create beauty products, or decorating our plates with edible flowers. Luckily, multi-tasking is easy for gardens, even in the desert! June is the month when we celebrate National Pollinator Week (June 18-24) so let’s look at encouraging our landscapes to help serve pollinators while they provide aesthetic beauty for us.
When it comes to pollinators, most of us know that the birds and the bees are important, but there are over 100,000 different species of animals that pollinate plants. The list includes bats, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles, bugs, flies, mice, lemurs, geckos, lizards, and even some marsupials from Down Under.
Closer to home, the Sonoran Desert has one of the greatest diversity of pollinators in the world, in part because we are located in the intersection of a number of biomes or habitats, and because we have our “sky islands” — mountain ranges with pines on top and saguaros at the bottom. It’s the equivalent of going from here to Canada with a mere gain in elevation. All this diversity is great news for people who want pollinator gardens.
One fascinating local group of pollinators to encourage are the gentle native bees. These bees are mostly solitary, and since they have no honey to protect, most are stingless. There are a vast array of these native bees, including bumblebees, carpenter bees, mason bees, miner bees, cactus bees, cellophane bees, leaf-cutter bees, ground bees, sweat bees, and the smallest bee on earth, Perdita minima, topping out at 2 mm long and living in just the right patch of soil in the desert, or in your desert yard. The easiest way to invite any of these friendly native bees into your garden is to plant native perennial plants.
Why perennial plants? Perennials tend to bloom for longer periods than either trees or shrubs, plus they are smaller. Perennials can easily be tucked in all over your yard, including in shady spots under trees and shrubs. Most perennials form low mounds and rarely, if ever, need pruning or fussing over. Adding native perennials adds patches or even swathes of color for you, plus ample forage for native pollinators.
The list of plants for native bees is extensive and could fill a book! To get you started, consider these 10 native perennials in a variety of colors. Texas betony (Stachys coccinea) produces scarlet blossoms, blue mist flower (Ageratum corymbosum) will give you delicate shades of blue or lavender, while threadleaf verbena (Verbena tenuisecta) is a rich purple. Yellow selections include the chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata), a yellow daisy with a chocolate center; and Saltillo primrose (Oenothera stubbei), a luscious lemon yellow. Flowers with golden hues include damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana), paperflower (Psilostrophe cooperi), angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis), and golden dyssodia (Thymophylla pentachaeta). Desert zinnia (Zinnia acerosa) provides abundant white flowers.
Along with food, native bees need some water, and a place to live. Carpenter bees make holes in wood or agave stalks for their nests, but the majority of our Sonoran bees nest in the ground. This means allowing some areas of your yard to remain free of gravel mulch. Creating wells around your trees and using bark mulch is one way to free the soil of hot rock mulch and encourage native bees to nest into your yard.
There are so many plants for pollinators, it is easy to find a few you like and add them to your landscape. Just remember, pollinators can’t read, so you may get butterflies and hummingbirds in your garden, along with the gentle native bees.
Jacqueline Soule, Ph.D., is a local author with nine books about gardening in the Southwest. She is currently working on the 10th — “Butterfly Gardening in Southern Arizona,” due out in the fall. You can read more of her writing at www.gardeningwithsoule.com and