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Pollinators are good for the garden

  • Wendy Irving
  • Clarkia amonea is pollinated by a wide variety of native bees and butterflies. They also are long-lasting cut flowers. Photo: Thayne Tuason
    Clarkia amonea is pollinated by a wide variety of native bees and butterflies. They also are long-lasting cut flowers. Photo: Thayne Tuason
    Every year in the late winter/early spring, Marin Master Gardeners holds a pollinator/beneficial plant sale. This is a highly-anticipated event in the gardening community. This year's sale is coming up next week on March 9 at the Falkirk Cultural Center's greenhouse on Mission Street in San Rafael.

    Why do master gardeners do this? Well, as the name of the sale indicates, plants that attract pollinators are good for the garden, the pollinators, the people, and the planet! Enticing birds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators onto your property helps build a bountiful, relaxing space. Creating a habitat that invites pollinators is basic to maintaining an overall Earth-friendly environment. It helps counteract the effects of declining pollinator populations due to habitat loss, climate change, disease, pests, pollution, and the introduction of non-native species. It supports the Earth's various ecosystems, which would not survive without the pollinators.

    Pollination is simply the act of a pollinator, such as a bee or a hummingbird, doing what comes naturally. Sipping sweet, calorie-rich nectar from flowers for energy — and in doing so, picking up pollen from the male anther of the flower and dispersing it among other plants (pollen provides some nutrients for the pollinator, too). Hopefully, the pollen finds its way to a flower's female stigma to fertilize the ovary, producing seed and fruit. Transferring pollen from flower to flower on the same plant is called self-pollination. Cross-pollination, carrying pollen from plant to plant of the same species, creates stronger plants. About 25% of plant pollination is done by the wind, leaving the rest of the job to the pollinators! The symbiotic relationship between plants and pollinators gives us a large portion of the food we eat.

    A monarch butterfly feeding on the nectar of an aster. Photo: Becky Laboy
    A monarch butterfly feeding on the nectar of an aster. Photo: Becky Laboy
    Most of us recognize bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies as pollinators, but bats, beetles, Syrphid flies, moths, and wasps are on the job, too! Bats, the best-known mammal pollinator, look for fragrant night-blooming plants, and beetles are important magnolia pollinators. Syrphid flies are the main cocoa plant pollinators. Like bats, moths seek out pale-colored night bloomers, but some species are active during the day. Wasps are incidental pollinators being smooth-bodied, but fig wasps are host-specific to figs. Host-specific means that a mutually beneficial, often exclusive relationship between a particular plant and insect has developed over the ages.

    If you are interested in introducing beneficial plants to your garden, consider which pollinators you would like to attract and which plants you find attractive. Bees show up for plants such as Yarrow (Achillia), Blue Aster (Aster X frikartii), and Ceanothus. Butterflies like California Coffeeberry (Frangula californica), Apricot Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), California Fuchsia (Epilobium canum), and, of course, native milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) to attract and breed Monarchs. Hummingbirds look for California Honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula), Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa), and many types of sage. Some plants, such as Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa) and Sticky Monkey Flower (Diplacus aurantiacus), attract all of them!

    You can make a part of your garden a favorite stopover for pollinators to rest and refuel as they travel from place to place. Focus on native plants —they are usually tough and drought-resistant and will provide food. Have some kind of water source (a simple birdbath will do). Nurture your soil and, above all, avoid toxic pesticides and fertilizers.

    We hope to see you at next week's Pollinator/Beneficial Plant Sale! Please check out the Marin Master Gardener Website (www.marinmg.ucanr.edu) for more information about the sale and everything you need to know about building a pollinator habitat in your backyard. Also, be sure to check out our video preview. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09E44vj_e10.