The Goods

Bring on the butterflies! Your pollinator-friendly plant primer

Four flowers that will help attract colourful insect friends to your yard.

Four flowers that will help attract colourful insect friends to your yard

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As we wait (rather anxiously) for the warm weather to arrive, we could all benefit from spending some time prepping our gardens for this year's growing season and planning plant purchases from our local greenhouses. Aside from their pretty blooms, our colourful backyard spaces offer up a place for bees, butterflies and more to feed and pollinate. If you're dreaming of a butterfly garden, but don't know where to start, Jon Peter, horticulturist, curator and manager of plant records at the Royal Botanical Gardens stopped by The Goods to share his top plant picks for a most welcoming backyard.

Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the stamen, the male part of the flower, to the pistil, female part of the flower, allowing the plant to produce fruit and seeds that become the next generation. This process is essential to the survival of plants, and most of the work is actually done by outside sources, such as wind or animals. They're just in it for the food though — pollen is a source of protein for many insects and nectar is a sugar-based, high energy food that rewards pollinators for doing the work. As they move from flower to flower collecting food, the insects unintentionally transfer pollen from one plant to another. And it's not just the cherished butterflies that do all the work — bees, moths, ants, beetles, flies and hummingbirds all contribute to the process, too. Jon says it's especially important to consider adding their fave plants to your garden because these pollinators are being threatened by habitat loss, climate change, and invasive plants, so helping to give these helpers a habitat on your property will benefit everyone.

Here are four plants that Jon Peter recommends Canadians consider adding to their own backyard oasis:


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These are pretty — but poisonous! Native to North America, milkweed are the only plants that monarch butterflies will lay their eggs on. The leaves are full of a poisonous sap that will render the butterflies and their caterpillars inedible to birds and other predators. To care for these pollinator favourites, simply leave perennials standing through the winter and eggs and adults will spend the cold months in the hollow stems of the milkweed. When spring arrives, cut the stems down and leave debris loosely piled in the garden to allow the insects to emerge. The caterpillars will live on the milkweed, feed off of it and when they emerge as butterflies, they'll feed off of the nectar from the flower as well!

Wild blue phlox

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These beauties help attract bees, butterflies and moths. Jon recommends that when picking plants for your garden, always opt for ones with a range of flowering times so that your garden will be in bloom for most of the season. This plant is native to Ontario and features pretty blue flowers and glossy, lance-like leaves. It's a great choice for spring and a valuable high-energy nectar source for your neighborhood pollinators. Wild blue phlox thrives in humus-rich soil under flowering shrubs or in a shady corner of the garden. It forms slowly and spreads in clumps that make a good ground cover over the growing season. In addition to the beautiful blue hues that phlox offers up, use a mixture of colours and shapes in your garden so that a variety of pollinators can visit at different times.

Tall blazing-star

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This is a great perennial for a full-sun garden. It's native to Canada and is perfect for an informal country garden. These pretty flowers are favourites of bumblebees, butterflies and hummingbirds because they produce abundant amounts of rich nectar. And if deer like to snack on your garden, this species is perfect because they hate these blooms. Jon also suggests include clean water features in the garden to supplement the water pollinators receive from nectar.


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There are a plethora of sage or salvia species you can grow in your garden, with both perennial and annual varieties available. Sage, like one pictured above, is a popular annual at the Royal Botanical Gardens and Monarchs and other butterflies use it as a main feeding stop on their fall migration south. And you don't need a garden to host this plant at home — it has excellent heat tolerance, meaning it's suitable for container or patio plantings. Jon suggests removing spent flowers throughout the season to encourage more to form for continuous blooms from spring through to late fall, or at least until the first hard frost.