Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Pollinators like herbs too!

Herbs do not only add flavour to our food or provide us with natural medicines and perfumes but also attract lots of pollinators to our gardens and allotments. During last year’s pollinator sampling we realised that some herbs are more attractive to pollinators than others but that herbs in general, if left to flower, will nearly always attract at least some pollinators.
One of the best herbs for pollinators we encountered in gardens last year has been lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) which was, especially on sunny days, covered with bees and bumblebees. Lavender is best planted in very well drained nutrient-poor soil in a sunny position and the best looking plants with the most pollinators have often been in sunny front gardens, probably because the soil was less improved compared to the back gardens. 

Sam watching the bumblebees in a front garden in Reading

Another excellent herb for pollinators is mint (Mentha spp.), often planted on allotments (or at least we mostly found it on allotment sites). I remember walking past a big clump of flowering spearmint (Mentha spicata) on one allotment site in Reading and seeing an amazing amount of bees and bumblebees flying busily from flower to flower. Mint can be quite an unruly plant especially in rich moist soil, spreading far and wide from its intended place with creeping stems. But with enough space and a bit of control it should not be too much of a problem. Just think of all the pollinators you will attract and all the mint tea you can drink.
A gatekeeper has found the wild marjoram
If you want to attract butterflies as well as bees and bumblebees plant wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare). We often found it planted on allotments and in gardens and could not only spot bumblebees and honeybees visiting the flowers but also the occasional butterfly. Wild marjoram is quite an undemanding plant and only asks for a sunny spot with well-drained soil. Once the flowers open in mid-summer, wild marjoram will never be without a visiting pollinator on a sunny day. Wild marjoram grows wild in some places in the UK, especially on calcareous soils.

Wild marjoram growing in calcareous grassland, its natural habitat in the UK

A good plant to attract hoverflies and beetles is fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). Fennel is a beautiful herb with feathery foliage (this can be green or bronze) and lots of tiny yellow flowers on top of tall stems. The plant fits equally well in a flower border or in a vegetable garden and can cope with dry soils. 

Other good herbs for pollinators are hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) with deep blue flowers, common sage (Salvia officinalis) which is often used as a remedy for sore throats and coughs, and winter savory (Satureja montana) which can be used to flavour summer vegetables, egg- and cheese dishes. Thyme, either common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) or the various creeping thymes (e.g. Thymus praecox, T. serpyllum or T. herba-barona), is also very popular with bees and other pollinators. All need full sun and well-drained nutrient-poor soil. 

Hyssop growing together with bedstraw in southern Germany

I also quite like chamomile (Matricaria recutita), a native annual plant which is used in teas to help with a sore stomach. If you grow this plant in your garden you can make your own stomach tea and provide a valuable food source for various pollinators at the same time. 

Chamomile (middle) growing next to wild marjoram (right)

If you haven`t tried growing herbs so far why not make a start this spring? Or if you already grow a collection of herbs add some new herbs you have not grown before. If you want to grow a wider selection of herbs you can also build a herb spiral (for more info have a look here: which will provide a lot of space for herbs with various moisture requirements. Have a go and you will be amazed how many pollinators you will attract even with just a few plants.


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