Grow native plants to attract butterflies, bees and birds

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Native prairie plants offer low maintenance, diversity and year-round fascination. Photo by Timothy Garrett

By Jan Axelson
Friends of Cherokee Marsh

Folks around the Northside are discovering a way to attract butterflies, bees, birds and other wildlife to their property while saving time and money and reducing air pollution at the same time. Colorful blooms from spring through fall are a bonus. The secret is to grow flowers and grasses that are native to our area.

When European settlers first arrived in what is now Dane County, they found large expanses of flowers and grasses unlike anything they had seen before. Our native plants are adapted to our climate and soils. They don’t need pesticides to thrive, and once established, they require little watering or weeding. Areas planted in native grasses and flowers don’t need mowing, and that means less time, expense and air pollution from power mowers.

Purple coneflowers are easy to grow and provide colorful blooms in midsummer. Photo by Timothy Garrett

The insects and birds that evolved along with our native plants are attracted to the natives as food sources. Monarchs and other butterflies use the plants as hosts for their larva. Most native bees are solitary and rarely sting because they don’t have a colony to defend.

As they go about their business, bees, moths, butterflies and hummingbirds perform an important function as pollinators. They feed on the nectar or pollen in flowers, and in doing so, transfer the powdery pollen between flowers and contribute to successful production of seeds and fruits.

Pollinators are essential for many of our food crops. But in recent years, the populations of many pollinators have been declining due in part to increased development and farming practices that leave fewer native plants on the land.

How can you help? Hannah Gaines Day of the University of Wisconsin Department of Entomology recommended, “if you have the space, you should aim for at least three different types of flowers blooming at all times from spring through fall, but even small patches of blooms are helpful.”

Most native flowers are perennials that will come up every year. Growing perennials from seed requires patience as it can take two or more years for the plants to establish themselves and bloom. Starting with plants will cost more, but you will likely see blooms the first year. Look for varieties that are native to southern Wisconsin or at least the Midwest. Give it a try and you will likely be pleased with the results. As Northsider and native plant enthusiast Alex Singer said, “There’s always something going on in my prairie.”