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  • A monarch butterfly on orange butterfly weed

Pollinator Gardens

A pollinator garden is a garden which is designed to provide for the needs of local pollinating species. This includes selecting plants that will provide food for various life stages, along with physical features to provide water and nesting habitat. Planting for pollinators is especially important in urban areas where pockets of habitat are needed so pollinators can thrive. 

How to Make a Garden Pollinator-Friendly

Whether you're an individual with a small area where you can fit a few pots, or an organization with a vast area that you're ready to re-wild, the pollinators are all looking for the same things:

  • Focus on native plants, which are the plants that co-evolved with local pollinators.
  • Provide food for adult pollinators in the form of flowering plants that offer nectar and pollen.
  • Choose plants with different blooming times to provide nectar and pollen throughout the growing season. 
  • Choose a variety of flower sizes and colours to attract and support a variety of pollinators. 
  • Plant several of the same species in clusters to help pollinators spot their favourites and to help ensure the pollen is transferred from one plant to another of the same type.
  • Don't forget the host plants. Host plants are where pollinators lay their eggs, and the leaves feed the young caterpillars. These include milkweed for monarchs, native grasses for skippers, nettles for red admirals, and plants from the parsley family for black swallowtails. Remember, the leaves of host plants are meant to be eaten, so don't get upset when you see holes in your leaves—celebrate! 
  • Leave some bare earth and hollow plant stems to provide nesting habitat for native bees. Many local bees are ground or cavity nesters, such as Common Eastern Plasterer Bees (Colletes inaequalis) who dig underground burrows or Virginia Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica) who chews holes in soft wood. And if you do leave room for ground nesting bee burrows, be sure not to cover them later with mulch.
  • Provide a water source by adding a shallow dish of water with rocks placed inside for flying pollinators to land on. You can also grow Cup plants, which catch rain water in their leaves.
  • Avoid pesticides which can both harm pollinators in the present and build up in the soil over time.


Who are the pollinators?

 A wasp climbs on milkweed

Mention pollinators and many people only think of bees and butterflies, but there are so many others who all need the right habitat to survive. Pollinators in the Humber Arboretum include: 

  • Butterflies
  • Bees*
  • Flies
  • Ants
  • Beetles
  • Moths
  • Ruby-throated hummingbirds 

*You hear a lot about honeybees, but honeybees aren't actually a native species in Canada—they come from Europe. We have many types of native bees which don't make honey but are an incredibly important part of our ecosystem. This includes a variety of bumble bees, sweat bees, leafcutter and mason bees, and mining bees.  

Plants for Pollinators

Here are just a few of the plants that can play an important role in a Toronto-area pollinator garden. Before selecting plants for your own space, be sure to do research to make sure your soil type and sun exposure match the needs of the plants you're considering.

A bee feeds on a pink milkweed flower

Common milkweed

(Asclepias syriaca)

Perhaps the most widely known plant-pollinator relationship is between milkweed and the monarch butterfly. This tall, sun-loving perennial is a pollinator garden powerhouse because it is both a popular food source for a wide variety of pollinating species, and is also the preferred host plant of the endangered monarch butterfly.

Pollinator Garden Role:

  • Flowers in summer, mid-June to August
  • Nectar and pollen feed a variety of pollinators
  • Host plant for monarch butterfly (danaus plexippus), milkweed tussock moth (euchaetes egle

Butterfly weed

(Asclepias tuberosa)

This herbaceous perennial is a type of milkweed, but it doesn't contain the milky, bitter sap that gives other milkweeds their name. Butterfly weed provides nectar that is enjoyed by a wide variety of pollinators. It can also be used as a host plant by monarch butterflies, although it does not seem to be their first choice when other plants in the milkweed family are available. 

Look for the bright orange flowers to appear in late June/early July and last into the early fall.


Pollinator Garden Role:

  • Blooms from late June to early fall
  • Nectar and pollen attract a variety of pollinators
  • Host plant for monarch butterfly (danaus plexippus), milkweed tussock moth (euchaetes egle), 

A butterfly feeds on tight pink flowers

Spotted Joe-Pye weed

(Eupatorium maculatum)

A tall plant with purple blooms, Joe-pye weed looks similar to milkweed but is in a different family. It offers food for many pollinators that lasts into early fall.

Pollinator Garden Role:

  • Blooms from mid-summer to early fall
  • Popular nectar and pollen plant for wide variety of small pollinators

A spiky red flower nods forward

Wild columbine

(Aquilegia canadensis)

Also known as Canada columbine and eastern red columbine, the unique red blooms provide early nectar to a variety of species. This plant can survive in less than ideal conditions (such as in the crevices of the rock wall at the front of the Centre for Urban Ecology).

Pollinator Garden Role:

  • blooms spring to summer
  • provides nectar to a variety of species
  • host plant for the columbine duskywing butterfly



A monarch butterfly feeds on a purple flower

New England aster

(Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

This late-bloomer helps extend the garden's nectar and pollen supply into the late summer and early fall. Some crescent and checkerspot caterpillars feed on asters, such as the caterpillar of the Pearl crescent butterfly (not pictured here; that's a monarch again!) 

Pollinator Garden Role:

  • blooms late summer to early fall
  • provides late-season food to a variety of insects
  • abundance of insects feeding on asters can also feed birds during migration season
  • birds such as chickadees and goldfinches will eat the seeds
  • host plant for pearl crescent (phyciodes tharos) and northern crescent butterflies

A small blue butterfly sits in a bright white flower

Canada anemone

(Anemone canadensis)

Canada anemone is a ground cover in the buttercup family that produces ample white flowers in late-May/June and through the summer. It is naturally a meadow flower, and enjoys the sun.

See it in the naturalized meadows in the Arboretum

Pollinator Garden Role:

  • provides nectar and pollen in late-May/June

A bumble bee climbs on spiky purple flowers

Wild bergamot

(Monarda fistulosa)

Sometimes referred to as a beebalm, wild bergamot has a showy flower that blooms in summer and is popular many different pollinators.

Pollinator garden role:

  • Blooms in summer (Late June/JulyAugust)
  • Very popular nectar and pollen plant for pollinators of all kinds


A tight pink flower and wispy pink seed plumes

Prairie smoke

(Geum triflorum)

Prairie smoke is a low-growing perennial that produces drooping, tight pink flowers. After being pollinated through the strength (and vibrations) of the bumble bee, prairie smoke produces a striking wispy pink seed plume.

Pollinator Garden Role:

  • flowers in early April/May which provides early food, especially pollen, for bumble bees

Yellow flowers with a dark brown center

Black-eyed Susan

(Rudbeckia hirta)

Black-eyed Susan is a recognizable plant with large flowers that have yellow petals, that fan out like the spokes of a wheel. It grows to about 2.5ft tall and prefers meadows, roadsides, and edge habitat along forests or lakeshores. The large flowerheads act as landing pads for insects. Black-eyed Susan attracts various bees, butterflies and moths, including Tiger Swallowtail butterflies and mining bees. This plant flowers mid-season from June through August.

Pollinator Garden Role:

  • Flowers from June through August
  • Attracts bees, butterflies, and moths

A hoverfly sits on a bright yellow flower

Sweet oxeye

(Heliopsis helianthoides)

Also called smooth ox-eye or false sunflower, this native perennial produces long lasting, yellow, daisy-like flowers that attract honeybees, as well as many native species of bees, butterflies and other pollinator species throughout the summer and into the early fall. The seeds are eaten by birds in the fall.

Pollinator Garden Role:

  • Long lasting flowers provide nectar throughout June, July and August
  • The ground nesting bee (Holcopasites heliopis) is a specialist pollinator of Sweet Oxeye
  • Seeds are a food source for birds

The spiky top of a tall green grass.

Bottlebrush grass

(Elymus hystrix)

A low maintenance tall-grass that grows in clumps, it is a food source for the larvae of the northern pearly eye butterfly as well as a number of small moth species.

Pollinator Garden Role:

  • Preferred food plant of the the northern pearly eye butterfly (Enodia anthedon) and a few species of moth
  • Provides nest material for birds
  • Nesting site and cover for bumblebees and other small pollinators

Tall green grass with small seeds at the top


(Panicum virgatum) 

This tall grass is low maintenance and drought resistant. It is a host plant to the Delaware skipper butterfly and the little wood satyr butterfly, and its leaves provide shelter for bumblebees and other pollinators for nesting and overwintering. The seeds stay on the plant into mid-winter providing an important food source for birds and wildlife.

Pollinator Garden Role:

  • Drought tolerant
  • Low maintenance
  • Host Plant for the Delaware skipper (Anatrytone logan) and little wood satyr (Megisto cymela) butterflies
  • Nesting site and protective cover for bumblebees and other small pollinators

(The switch grass cultivar found in the Centre for Urban Ecology's Pollinator Garden is called 'Prairie Winds'®)

The weight of small brown seeds cause a tall, green grass to droop.

Canada wild rye

(Elymus canadensis)

A native bunchgrass, Canada wild rye is low maintenance and provides shelter to bumblebees and other pollinator insects for nesting and overwintering. It grows in bunches, meaning it is easy to interplant with other pollinator-friendly plants.

Pollinator Garden Role:

  • Provides shelter for bumblebees and other pollinator insects

More Pollinator Garden Plants

  • Giant sunflower (Helianthus giganteus)
  • Lanceleaf tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata)
  • Hairy Beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus)
  • Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
  • Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  • Pale coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
  • American trumpet vine (Campsis radicans)
  • Spiked blazing star, dense blazing star (Liatris spicata)
  • Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Trees and Shrubs

  • Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)
  • Common ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
  • Common snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)

Sources and Further Reading: