A year ago, I visited a Texas lavender farm for the first time. I was in awe at the number of bees buzzing around as I stooped to harvest some of the flowering stems. Until then, I had no idea what a bee magnet lavender was!
I have long grown herbs in our North Texas garden. I have always planted at least one African blue basil plant each spring, as the bees are drawn to its blooms in droves. I have even planted fennel and parsley as host plants for butterflies. But beyond that, I never gave much consideration to planting herbs specifically for pollinators until the day I saw a lavender field alive with bees!
This week is National Pollinator Week.
There are many ways that gardeners can lend pollinators a hand. Some may prefer to use only plants native to their region, while others may be drawn to annuals such as zinnias and pentas. Still others may choose the herbal way – attracting pollinators to their garden with herbs and their fragrant blossoms. What a winning arrangement! Growing herbs for use in the home, while also benefiting the earth. (Just please be sure to plant enough to share and don’t use pesticides.)
Lavender (shown in photo above) does best in full sun, with well drained soil. There are over 400 varieties of lavender. Some are grown specifically for cooking or for crafting, for distilling into essential oils or for landscaping. The United States Lavender Growers Association is an excellent resource for researching which varieties may be best suited for your intended use. A few lavender varieties have white blossoms, while the majority are some shade of — lavender.
Garlic chives (shown above and below) are somewhat invasive in my North Texas garden, but always a welcome sight. When other plants are slowing down in the late summer heat, garlic chives are only beginning to show their spectacular white blossoms. (Garlic chives can be contained by cutting off the spent blossoms before the seeds have had a chance to dry and spread about. I just never get around to deadheading it in time…)
I choose not to use garlic chives in my kitchen, as I find their flavor to be overpowering. I much prefer the milder onion chives, which have a small pinkish purple bloom in the spring. I do not personally find as many pollinators using onion chives.
Fennel, as shown below, can be used as a host plant by the black swallowtail butterfly.
The fennel blossom – large, flat and bright yellow – makes the perfect “landing pad” for pollinators large and small. Parsley and dill are also host plants to the black swallowtail butterfly. I have not had great success with dill in my garden, though fennel does extremely well. Parsley has lovely blooms but does not attract pollinators as well as fennel. (Fennel shown below.)
While Greek oregano does not have showy blossoms, bees and smaller butterflies can often be found on it. (Shown below. I personally think this oregano’s blooms look a mess!) Greek Oregano is evergreen in North Texas and can be harvested year-round for Italian cooking. Like lavender, oregano prefers well drained soil and a sunny location.
Kent Beauty, an ornamental oregano with lovely cascading blooms, will also attract pollinators. What you give up in culinary use, you gain in beauty with this one… Kent Beauty is reported to be winter hardy to zone 9, though I have yet to have one make it through a winter. (I blame our wet winters…)
There are more than 50 varieties of basil, most grown for their wonderfully edible leaves. To keep a basil plant producing leaves, the blossoms need to be pinched off or it will put its energy into producing seeds. Simply snip off any forming blooms every time you harvest basil.
African blue basil, however, is not commonly used in the kitchen as it has a strong camphor smell that many dislike. It will continue producing blossoms – and attracting pollinators – all summer long. In fact, African blue basil (shown below, with okra) is often planted near vegetables to aid in pollination.
This is in no part a complete list of herbs that attract pollinators, rather just a taste of the possibilities As you are celebrating National Pollinator Week, consider adding a few herbs to your garden. A treat for you and a treat for our pollinators.