By Kristi Newland

Spring is just weeks away and often has many of us out planting in our yards or other outdoor spaces. If you’re planning your spring planting adventure, there are a number of options to consider. One option involves giving pollinators a helping hand through your plant choices. 

Consider adding nectar-rich wildflowers to your landscape to support your favorite butterflies, hummingbirds, honeybees, or other pollinators. Pollinators play a vital role in agriculture and in the continued survival of wild places. While they dine on the nectar of a wildflower, they are also pollinating the flower (leaving behind pollen picked up at another flower and picking up more pollen to carry on to another). Such pollination leads to the production of seeds, which later may become new plants.

Pollinators, including honeybees and butterflies, are facing a challenge. At least part of the problem is a lack of habitat. As people have developed the land, the plants many of the pollinators count on are disappearing. The monarch butterfly provides a perfect example. The population of monarch butterflies has drastically dropped by approximately 90% since the 1990s. While adult monarch butterflies feed on the nectar of many flowers, they need specific types of milkweed if their species is to survive. Milkweed plants are where monarchs lay their eggs. 

It is also the exclusive food for the monarch caterpillar (the larval stage of the monarch butterfly). Milkweed contains a toxin that prevents most animals from eating it, but monarch butterflies are immune to it. By eating the milkweed, they end up tasting terrible to many potential predators. Hence, the milkweed not only sustains the baby but also protects the adults. Without milkweed, the monarch butterfly population continues to decline.

If you already have pollinator-friendly plants in your yard, consider adding some host plants like milkweed if your goal is to have a complete butterfly environment. Showy milkweed and whorled milkweed are two of the milkweed plants recommended for our region. Milkweed comes in different colors, a range of tolerances for shade, and preferences for dry or wet soil. It’s also helpful to provide a shallow source of clean water for the butterflies.

Another option to consider when planning your landscaping is xeriscaping. Xeriscaping is landscaping, or gardening, in a way that reduces or eliminates the need for irrigation. Xeriscaping was developed for arid and semi-arid climates and utilizes water-conserving techniques such as drought-tolerant plants,

mulch, and efficient irrigation. Xeriscaping generally is not limited to the use of desert plants. In non-desert, areas using native plants can be a big part of conserving water since such plants are adapted to the local climate and consequently require less human-supplied water. Just remember, if you’re reading up on the plants you may use, drought-tolerant can be a relative term. A plant that’s considered drought-tolerant in the northeastern part of the country may not survive in the driest of climates.

If you’re not sure if you want to choose between on supporting pollinators or saving water, don’t worry; some plants fit both goals. No matter which direction you’re going, saving water, supporting pollinators, or both, several local or online garden suppliers can offer you advice. And you don’t have to have a big backyard to plant for pollinators or to xeriscape. 

There are plants that work well in containers that fit either or both. When it comes to supporting Monarch butterflies, there are a variety of organizations (Monarch Butterfly Garden, Save Our Monarchs Foundation, etc..) that support their conservation and offer milkweed plants and seeds for sale. If you’re looking for more information on monarch butterflies, check out the Xerces Society, Monarch Watch, and National Wildlife Federation.

Kristi Newland is the director of Lee Richardson Zoo.