Annuals which attract pollinators


Every time you post a photo of annuals which attract pollinators I ask for a list of annuals that attract and no one ever responds.
A simple, sorry we do not know would suffice but continually ignoring the questions makes you look rather foolish. I have taken this up with a number of professional gardeners as I am also one and they usually just laugh and say you likely have no idea or you would have shared a list a long time ago if you are really trying to help our fragile ecosystem. Is this true?


Thanks for your question, and very sorry that you have been feeling frustrated in finding answers.

The Toronto Master Gardeners are seriously committed to preserving our natural ecosystems, and when we answer questions we provide reliable science-based advice to gardeners.

Sometimes people may not appreciate our answers because they are only looking for confirmation of their own ideas (i.e. confirmation bias).  I hope you are not seeking confirmation of your own ideas because this is not our mandate, and we hope it is also not YOUR goal.  We answer questions in a way that we think are sound solutions/advice based on scientific evidence.  If we cannot answer a question because there is no scientific research to back it up, we will let you know and provide our best guess based on existing knowledge.  Sometimes we do get stumped!

It’s possible that you may have been asking your questions on Facebook or Instagram.  We’ve stated clearly there that we do not answer questions on those fora/forums.  We do not have the resources to answer questions on social media, which usually require a tight turnaround time.  We are a volunteer organization that depends very heavily on our members’ time and personal resources; thus we answer questions only on our home page in the Ask a Master Gardener feature, which is staffed by our volunteers.  We are glad that you’ve now found this feature and hope you will use it in the future.

It is hard to come up with an extensive or exhaustive list of pollinator-popular plants, especially annuals (but even perennials).

There are many different kinds of pollinators and they have their preferences, e.g. active in sun or shade; what shape and/or colour of flower; how easy it is to access the nectar, etc.  Some bees tend to prefer bigger patches of flowers in the sun but there are also pollinator moths that are active only at night.  Monarch and Swallowtail butterflies also have their own preferences; for Monarchs, this is milkweed (and the least aggressive forms of milkweed for limited-space gardeners are Swamp Milkweed and Butterfly Milkweed).  Many type of wasps (from very tiny to somewhat larger) are also present in our gardens if we have enough biodiversity.  Ants also play a role; many times it is a helpful one, but in some cases not (ants sometimes help harmful aphids).  It is best to watch out for diseases – fungal, bacterial and viral – and take early action.  But that is a subject for another post.

In the spring I’ve seen a lot of bees on my scilla (which are generally considered invasive but are one of the early sources of nectar) and alliums, and in the fall the most pollinator activity is on my asters, Geranium ‘Rozanne’ and bugbane (Actaea simplex ‘Artropurpurea’ – a part-shade plant I highly recommend because of its 4-season interest and shrub-like structure; it does require moisture, which is provided by a downspout in my case).  In the mid to late spring and early to mid-summer, it’s often my herbs – chives; thyme; oregano; sage; but also phlox, coreopsis and penstemon that are laying out the red carpet.

Pollinators zone in on some types of heuchera such as Palace Purple and heucherellas – heucherellas have interbred with my heuchera and my native tiarella (foam flower) and now I have lots of hybrids.

Insects need not only flowers for nectar but also leaves, and I often find my heuchera leaves (and some other native plant leaves) chewed up at the edges by native insects – I welcome this as a sign of success even though it is not what us gardeners have been socialized to think of as aesthetically beautiful.

The leaves on native Eastern Redbuds are often chewed in a very geometrical way by leafcutter bees.  And cabbage moths will nibble on rose leaves.  We intervene only if the plant is in danger of dying; then we employ organic measures before resorting to more drastic ones.  If we want thriving ecosystems in our own backyards we need to adjust our thinking and educate our clients also.

Two species that attract perhaps the largest number of pollinators are asters and goldenrods.  However, these perennials are flowering only in the late summer and fall.

It’s best to try and have something in bloom from early spring to late fall, but a lot of annuals are not flowering in early spring because it is too cold.  Also, many annuals are not as pollinator-friendly as perennials because plant breeders have often prioritized speedy maturation and splashy flowers over rich and/or easily available nectar.

Even some “nativars” (hybridized cultivars of native perennial plants) don’t always attract lots of pollinators because their leaf colour and/or flower shape has been changed.

In addition, it is useful to remember that many of the annuals we plant in southern Ontario have come from Zones 8-11 (and these are sometimes listed on our tags as USDA zones; Canadian zones are one number higher).  These annuals have co-evolved with insects that are native in their home regions, not insects that are native to the Toronto area.

Also — one picture of a pollinator on an annual on Instagram or Facebook is enticing for all of us, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that that particular annual attracts tons of pollinators.  It is meant to capture a beautiful moment in time and encourage you to explore further.

For this reason (i.e. that annuals may be pollinators but not the BEST pollinators), in my own garden I have gradually reduced my use of annuals, and now limit them to pots in strategic locations or to interplant in blank spaces with perennials to provide some season-long colour at stages when my perennials are either not in flower or are getting ready for winter in the mid to late fall.  In shady areas, impatiens are very good for colour, but their flowers are not usually pollinator-friendly.

I also try to plant long-blooming perennials and ones attractive to pollinators instead of ones that bloom for just two weeks, and I am incorporating more native plants.  It is best to read up on native plants; many are well-behaved for small gardens but some can be aggressive.

There are some annuals which are said to be popular with pollinators (a few are sunflowers, zinnias, sweet alyssum, cosmos, oregano, chives, marigolds, nasturtiums, portulaca (moss rose), salvia, cleome, verbena (especially veberna bonariansis, a native plant)).  Generally, the more open and flat the flower (even if it is part of a compound flower) the more attractive it may be to insects.  Please see these next two links.

Better Habitat for Bees [Michigan State University]

Garden Like A Pro: Pollinator Plants


The Toronto Master Gardeners have answered a lot of questions on pollinators (just type pollinator garden in the search field on our home page) and we also have a guide – see here.

Pollinator Garden: A Toronto Master Gardeners Guide

Also, here’s a previous question we answered to give you more information.  It has links that will take you to various sites about pollinator-friendly plants and suitable growing conditions.

Incorporating pollinators plants

Good luck; I hope you find a lot of information here to get you started.

Please share the link to our home page with the other professional gardeners you deal with and assure them that we do, indeed, care very much about an ecological and sustainable approach to preserving our native ecosystems.  However, while you and I and many other gardeners may find annuals both beautiful and colourful additions to our gardens, extensive annual beds are not usually part of an ecological approach and are not really the answer for pollinators, so you will have to decide for yourself and your clients how eco-friendly you want the gardens to be.  A good small step would be to replace two or three annuals with long-blooming perennials that attract insects, and then assess the following year what your efforts have achieved.

Urban gardeners (and especially professional gardeners like yourself)  have more influence than we think we do over controlling the spread of invasive species and in fighting the worst effects of climate change.  You may want to peruse these other links:

How urban gardens can boost biodiversity and make cities more sustainable [The Conversation]

How urban gardening could be at the forefront of climate change adaptation in Canada’s cities [CBC News]


Gardening for Climate Change [National Wildlife Federation]

Protecting our near-urban nature is an important step in addressing climate change [Policy Options]