Annie Calovich

August 29, 2014

To bee or not to bee

Some new cultivars of wildflowers have lost the ability to feed pollinators. Here’s how to tell whether they are worth planting — for you and for the bees and butterflies.

After a few years of pledging – at some level that didn’t reach full consciousness – to plant for pollinators, orange milkweed is blowing in the breeze in my yard. It should all be planted in a solid mass, and not in patches as it is in my yard, but if it reseeds, the whole yard should eventually be a milkweed moat.

Hummingbirds have found a place to light in lantana, hummingbird moths in black-and-blue salvia, bees in mountain mint.

There are still plenty of coleus, hibiscus, caladiums and other colorful plants in my garden that do not serve pollinators, but progress is progress.

My friend Alanna said she had read that some of the new flower cultivars are not pollinator-friendly. Much as she is a sucker for “billowing orange flowers,” “who doesn’t want coreopsis and coneflower in sunset shades – unless they don’t feed the bees?”

Yeah, it’s a problem. Who doesn’t look deep into the eyes of Summer Sky, Sundown, Tomato Soup and Now Cheesier coneflowers (aka echinacea) and not want to take them home? Another factor, I told Alanna, is that some of the new coneflower cultivars haven’t been performing well in gardens, when the old-fashioned coneflowers, of course, do great.

Master gardener Cynthia Abbott clarified one assumption when she told me that the single forms of the new cultivars of coneflower do attract pollinators. When I looked up the fiery orange Tiki Torch online, for example, I was assured that it “offers an open banquet table to all sorts of bees.”

But, Abbot said, double forms – which add another set of petals, looking as if a pompom had been placed atop the flower – either don’t produce nectar or pollen or, because of their double-decker nature, don’t allow bees access to it. These would include Razzmatazz and Hot Papaya.

And it is true that many of the new cultivars are not as long-lived as the native species wildflowers, said Abbott and Scott Vogt, director of Dyck Arboretum of the Plains in Hesston. The new cultivars may last two to three years at the arboretum, Vogt said. Abbot has grown Early Sunrise and Sundown, and they both went down early.

“When you invest $8, $10 on a coneflower you want them to last longer,” Vogt said. He has read that the new coneflowers are bred to bloom over a long period of time, even through the fall, so that they put their energy into flowers instead of roots. That means that they may not make it through the winter. A couple of exceptions are Cheyenne and Magnum, which seem to be sturdy here, extension agent Bob Neier said.

But there is something you can do to help the less hardy plants along, Vogt said. Deadheading heavy-flowering perennials in mid- to late August — i.e., now — forces the plant to put its energy into root development ahead of winter, Vogt said. Even doing this, the arboretum loses about one out of five of the heavy bloomers over a winter.

The same goes for such long-blooming coreopsis cultivars as Full Moon, Vogt said. Some gardeners may like the long bloom time so much that they won’t mind the possibility of losing the plants. Others may want to go the deadheading route. But then “it's just another thing you add to your to-do list,” Vogt said.

The echinacea species such as pallida, angustifolia, paradoxa and purpurea are longer-lived, Vogt said. They are among the plants that will be for sale when Dyck Arboretum has its FloraKansas sale of native plants next weekend in Hesston. The sale runs from Thursday (for members only) through Sept. 7. It will feature shrubs and grasses as well as perennials, and plants for shade as well as sun. Vogt and others will be on hand to help with plant selection.

The paradoxa is a yellow coneflower that Abbott recommends for people who want to try something different in the world of echinacea.

While pollinators include butterflies, hummingbirds and moths, the most important is the bee, because “bees are so important for food,” and there have been huge losses of bees from hive collapse, Vogt said.

“Any gardener can look and see the certain types of plants that are more attractive to bees,” Vogt said. Long-blooming good bets that have tubular flowers include Russian sage, Major Wheeler honeysuckle and agastache, he said.

Many people don’t like the idea of planting for bees. Abbott says the bees need better PR. Vogt says the arboretum tells visitors, “Leave the bees alone, and they’ll leave you alone.”

He advises grouping flowers together so that the bees can go from plant to plant. And he recommends planting for a succession of bloom through the summer. For example, you can plant three types of liatris to bloom one after the other: button blazing star, dotted gayfeather and Kansas gayfeather.

As we move toward autumn, swamp milkweed is important for feeding the monarch butterflies as they migrate, and asters and goldenrod should have a place in the fall garden for pollinators, Vogt said.

Other practices that favor pollinators include planting in layers so that they have the shelter of shrubs and grasses, and avoiding pesticide use in the yard. Watering on the ground rather than from above keeps water off the blooms when the pollinators visit.

My friend Alanna’s instincts are good: Why, indeed, plant flowers that don’t feed the bees? If you have a hard time making decisions about what you want to plant because it’s all so pretty – check first to see whether the flowers will serve pollinators, and go with those. Read plant tags or look up plant names on the Internet to find out.

Yes, this is me talking to myself.

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or Follow her on Twitter: @anniecalovich.

Learn more about bees

The Great Plains Nature Center will have a Honey Bee Festival from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 20 at 6232 E. 29th St. North. The free event will include beekeepers, the center’s indoor hive of more than 40,000 bees, and presentations on plants that attract pollinators.

If you go

FloraKansas native plant sale

When: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 6, and noon to 4 p.m. Sept. 7

Where: Dyck Arboretum of the Plains in Hesston

How much: Free admission


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