What Is Nectar: Why Do Plants Produce Nectar


By: Mary Ellen Ellis

The Greek gods supposedly ate ambrosia and drank nectar, and hummingbirds drink nectar, but what exactly is it? If you’ve ever wondered what nectar is, and if you can get some out of your garden, you’re not alone.

What is Nectar?

Nectar is a sweet liquid produced by plants. It is especially produced by flowers on flowering plants. Nectar is very sweet and this is why butterflies, hummingbirds, bats, and other animals slurp it up. It gives them a good source of energy and calories. Bees collect nectar to turn into honey.

Nectar is more than just sweet, though. It is also rich in vitamins, salts, oils, and other nutrients. This sweet, nutritious liquid is produced by glands in a plant called the nectaries. Depending on the plant species, the nectaries may be located on different parts of the flower, including the petals, pistils, and stamen.

Why Do Plants Produce Nectar, and What Does Nectar Do?

It’s exactly because this sweet liquid is so attractive to some insects, birds, and mammals that plants produce nectar at all. It may provide these animals with a food source, but what nectar rich plants are up to is tempting them to aid in pollination. For plants to reproduce, they need to get pollen from one flower to another, but plants don’t move.

The nectar attracts a pollinator, like a butterfly. While feeding, pollen sticks to the butterfly. At the next flower some of this pollen is transferred. The pollinator is just out for a meal, but is unwittingly helping the plant procreate.

Plants to Attract Pollinators

Growing plants for nectar is rewarding because you provide natural sources of food for pollinators like butterflies and bees. Some plants are better than others for nectar production:

Bees

To attract bees, try:

  • Citrus trees
  • American holly
  • Saw palmetto
  • Sea grape
  • Southern magnolia
  • Sweetbay magnolia

Butterflies

Butterflies love the following nectar rich plants:

  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Buttonbush
  • Salvia
  • Purple coneflower
  • Butterfly milkweed
  • Hibiscus
  • Firebush

Hummingbirds

For hummingbirds, try planting:

  • Butterfly milkweed
  • Coral honeysuckle
  • Morning glory
  • Trumpet vine
  • Wild azalea
  • Red basil

By growing plants for nectar, you can enjoy seeing more butterflies and hummingbirds in your garden, but you also support these vital pollinators.

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Growing Host Plants and Nectar Plants to Attract Butterflies

It takes more than nectar to entice butterflies to take up residence in your garden. While nectar-rich flowers attract passersby to stop and feed, host plants send an invitation to stay a while. Larval host plants are the secret to successful butterfly gardening they are plants required by a caterpillar for growth and development.

By planting host plants in your garden, you offer a promise of food for the next generation and will attract more butterflies than you thought possible.


MSU Extension

Pollinators and native bees will feed on many different types of flowering plants in your landscape and garden.

European honey bee on Sedum. Photo by Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

Pollinators are looking for nectar and pollen when foraging in your garden. This is their food, the carbohydrates and protein they need to thrive and produce offspring. Native bees will widely feed on many different types of flowering plants in your landscape and garden.

Think about “serving” up a menu of blooms in early spring through fall. Choose a wide range of flowering plants including annuals, herbaceous perennials and native plants, bulbs, trees and shrubs that are known to support pollinator health. Early blooming plants such as spring bulbs or Pachysandra, or very late bloomers such as Sedum or Anemone are often the most needed food sources for pollinators since there are fewer floral resources available during those times.

Some annuals like Tithonia and perennials like Helenium (Sneezeweed) can be encouraged to re-bloom during summer with pruning and routine dead-heading. Other garden favorites have been bred to continue blooming throughout the season. Providing a wide range of bloom sizes and shapes will encourage these insects regardless of the insect’s size. Tubular-shaped flowers with an extended petal, like foxglove or Salvia, allow bees to perch and then enter the bloom. Open flowers with flat umbels like our native ironweed provide resources to many kinds of beneficial insects.

Bees will forage on hundreds of different flowering plants, but they especially love purple, blue, white, yellow, mauve or violet flowers. Using UV light, bees see things in flowers our eyes cannot, including patterns, colors and markings, which enables them to pilot directly to a “landing pad” leading to the pollen source.

Human vision of a flower (left) versus insect vision (right). Photos by Zachary Huang, MSU.

Flowers bred to have dense petals such as roses or peonies may not accommodate pollinators since the nectar glands and pollen laden stamens are more difficult to locate. A plant that was bred to be sterile (lacking stamens) or does not contain nectar does not benefit pollinators.

Early show

Early spring-blooming plants such as Pachysandra and bugleweed buzz to life with insect activity when windy spring weather makes it difficult to navigate plants that are taller. Minor bulbs like Siberian squill, Punchkinia and Chinodoxa attract the tiniest of bee species. Perennial favorites such as bleeding heart, foxglove and Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ bring in the late-spring show audience and larger bees are often seen feeding on these beauties.

Prime time

By the time spring unfolds, garden favorites like single peonies reveal their pollen-laden anthers and start receiving attention from bees. New hybrids of coral bells re-bloom throughout the season and well into fall with fresh bloom spikes emerging every couple of weeks. Summer bulbs like Allium christophii and Allium ‘Millenium’ add to the palette and are bee magnets! With Allium cultivars that bloom throughout spring and summer, possibilities are endless.

Mid-season, traditional perennial border plants including sneezeweed, globe thistle and blazing star offer unlimited opportunities for many pollinators to forage. Native and non-native coneflowers are a favorite of bees. Sneezeweed is especially responsive to dead-heading and will continue producing new blooms until frost. Colorful annuals and herbs can really pack a punch with attractive colors while providing a long bloom season. Herbs such as borage are irresistible for many species of bees and hover flies. By choosing sunflowers that are branched and range in days-to-harvest by a week or so, you can provide fresh blooms for a longer period. A tall, late summer annual known as Tithonia starts blooming early August and continues until frost. Butterflies, bees and hover flies covet these flaming-orange blooms. The tall purple orbs of Verbena bonariensis and fragrant annual Heliotrope are heavily used by bees of different sizes. Several zinnia cultivars are rarely visited by bees, however some of the more open types and Zinnia ‘Benary Giant’ are top contenders in annual gardens. Other annuals such as tall salvia (Victoria blue or white), lantana and Pentas add color and provide nectar and pollen for many bee species.

Honey bees on globe thistle (left) and native bee on coneflower (right). Photos by Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension.

Late show

Sedum has to be one of the most diverse plant groups in gardens. From low-growing, colorful ground covers to the upright stately ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum, their blossoms are intoxicating for many bees and flies. These late-season bloomers help extend available pollen and nectar along with garden favorites including Japanese anemone, sweet smelling snakeroot and Rudbeckia ‘Autumn Sun.’

Native and non-native trees and flowering shrubs play a huge role in supporting pollinators. In early summer, lindens burst into bloom with sweetly scented panicles of yellow blooms tucked beneath their foliage. Button bush, a favorite for moist soil or a wetland edge, blooms in mid-summer, and panicle hydrangeas, with their stately towers of blooms, are visited later by bees and flies. Many types of bees visit the blooms and are supported by these plants.

Honey bee on snakeroot (left) and a native bee on geranium (right). Photos by Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension (left) and Jason Gibbs, MSU (right).

Putting it all together – bee intentional!

Smart gardeners are aware of their gardening actions and activities. While dead-heading plants like sneezeweed encourages additional blooms, early dead-heading of Hosta blooms may rob the pollinators of a great lunch. Blooming coleus may be thought of as unsightly, but not to a bee. A member of the mint family, these small blooms are very attractive to bees. Perhaps it is about the way we think of “tidiness” in the garden and we let some things go.

Beneficial insects other than bees are also supported by flowers, such as this predatory wasp on swamp milkweed (left) and hover fly on anemone (right). Photos by Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension.

The importance of pollinators

Pollinators are essential to our environment and are uniquely linked to our food supply. They pollinate more than 85 percent of the world’s flowering plants and are ultimately responsible for the seeds and fruits that humans, song birds and even black bears consume. Recent concerns about the decline of pollinating insects have caused gardeners to learn how to make positive contributions towards their conservation. Understanding habitat needs and food sources while adjusting our garden maintenance routine is a step forward in pollinator conservation.

One often thinks first of the honey bee as a pollinator, but over 400 species of native bees live in Michigan. Native bees come in many shapes and sizes, and are often uniquely linked with native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, but will also work a widely diverse garden plant palette.

Beneficial insects also make up the world’s hardest-working workforce by keeping detrimental insects in check. A diverse selection of native and non-native plants, judicious reduction of pesticide use and observant gardeners come together to create a strategy for preserving bees and other “good bugs” in our landscapes and gardens.

This article was published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit https://extension.msu.edu. To have a digest of information delivered straight to your email inbox, visit https://extension.msu.edu/newsletters. To contact an expert in your area, visit https://extension.msu.edu/experts, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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Beautiful Perennials that Attract Butterflies and Other Pollinators

Perennials such as Lantana, Yarrow, and Allium are just the beginnings of a butterfly garden. Make sure to include a diverse number of shrubs, trees, and vines, as well as annuals that attract pollinators, as well. Include differing heights, bloom times, and flower shapes to provide as varied a garden as possible.

Perennials that Attract Butterflies – Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

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Coneflower offers brilliant purple flowers that gardeners and pollinators both enjoy. The flower heads not only draw in pollinators such as butterflies, but they attract a variety of birds, too.

The stalks of the Coneflower grow up to three feet tall, so they work best when placed towards the middle of a butterfly garden. To ensure optimal blooming and growth, plant Coneflower in organically fertile soil amend with organic compost if necessary.

Coneflower adapts to various climates and, once fully established, is both drought and heat tolerant. Blooms first appear in the early summer and continue until the fall.

Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii)

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As the name suggests, Butterfly Bush attracts butterflies but also has flowers bees love, and that hummingbirds and other pollinators enjoy, too. This beautiful perennial produces the most stunning flower spikes in a variety of colors, including pink, blue and multi-colored.

Seedless varieties reduce the risk of the plant taking over. Some types of the Butterfly Bush grow up to 12 feet tall, but others are much smaller.

These low-maintenance perennials seem to thrive under the worst conditions and are naturally resistant to a variety of ailments, including drought, insects, and stress.

Aster (Astereae)

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If you want to bring butterflies to your yard, consider planting Asters. The small feathery flowers of the Aster come in a variety of colors and bloom from summer until the fall.

Leave withered stalks for much-needed texture in the barren months or prune back after flowering finishes. Choose a planting location for asters that provides full sun and well-draining soil.

Add a few inches of mulch to your flower beds to help the ground stay moist, as Asters don’t do well in dry conditions. Asters grow up to six feet tall, so plant towards the back of gardens.

Orange Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) – Butterfly Attracting Perennials

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Milkweed, also known as Butterfly Weed, is the food source for caterpillars that turn into Monarch butterflies. Despite its name and the fact that they are host plants to bring butterflies like the Monarch, butterflies are not the only thing it attracts, as ladybugs, bees, and other helpful insects enjoy it as well.

The flat clusters of orange flowers bloom from early in the summer until the first frost. This is a frequent choice for butterfly gardens, as it’s drought-tolerant, so it does well in the drier spots.

The only requirement for growing Orange Milkweed is to choose a location that provides eight hours of direct sunlight.

Tickseed (Coreopsis)

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Two of the most popular choices of Tickseed are Moonbeam and perennial. Gardeners enjoy Moonbeam for the showy flowers that begin appearing in the late spring and remain throughout the summer.

Perennial Tickseed is a low-maintenance option with yellow-orange flowers that bloom from May through July.

No matter which of the perennial flowers that bloom in summer you choose, find a planting location with full sun and well-draining soil. Both types do well at attracting butterflies and other beneficial insects and thrive in diverse soil conditions.

Salvia (Salvia officinalis)

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Salvia also referred to as Sage, is one of the most useful and aromatic plants around. The sun-loving Salvia plant blooms from summer throughout the entire fall. Lovely to humans, Salvia are flowers attracting hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and other helpful insects.

The plant is a member of the mint family, is edible, and is often used in cooking. When planting Salvia, find a spot that provides a lot of direct sunlight and well-draining soil.

Do not overwater Salvia, as it causes the plant to wither and die. The tubular blossoms sit on top of the square stems. The odor emitted from the green leaves naturally repels various garden pests.

Best Perennials that Attract Butterflies – Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata)

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Garden Phlox is an excellent choice for many gardens as it offers a long blooming period. The slender blooms from Garden Phlox come in a variety of colors, including rare blue ones.

Bloom time for Garden Phlox extends from early in the summer until the beginning of fall. As Garden Phlox grows up to five feet tall, choose planting locations in the middle or towards the back.

Look for spots where these long blooming perennials receive full sun, although they adapt well to partial shade. Always amend your soil before planting Garden Phlox and use well-draining soil.

Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum)

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Add Joe Pye Weed to your butterfly garden to help attract butterflies later in the season. A late bloomer, Joe Pye Weed flowers from late summer until the early fall. The plant reaches up to seven feet tall and four feet wide once mature.

The tubular-shaped flowers are known for their sweet nectar. When selecting a planting location for Joe Pye Weed, light is the biggest concern.

Typically, this nectar plant grows best in partial shade as it requires evenly moist soil. If growing in the full sun, make sure to keep the soil moist, as hot and dry conditions kill it.

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)

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Bee Balm features bright, colorful flowers that attract a variety of butterflies and other pollinators. The flowers of this plant begin blooming in the early spring and continue to appear until fall, giving it one of the longest blooming periods.

When selecting a spot for Bee Balm, keep it in the middle of the flower beds or the back of containers, as it reaches four feet tall once mature.

Bee Balm’s only planting requirements are well-draining soil and a lot of direct sunlight. The blossoms perform better in full sun, although it adapts to partial shade.

Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) – Perennials for Attracting Butterflies

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The leaves and stalks of Goldenrod often make gardeners think of weeds, but many experienced gardeners classify it as a wildflower. Goldenrod is not the most attractive perennial on this list until it’s in full bloom where the golden flower spikes appear on tall and thin stalks.

Blooming begins in summer and lasts through the fall. Goldenrod’s invasive nature is why others classify it is a weed, as it quickly takes over any garden. To prevent this, prune it regularly.

This hardy plant adapts well to a variety of soil conditions, as long as it’s well-draining. This one requires a lot of sunlight, so choose a spot in your garden that receives the most sun.

Stonecrop (Sedum)

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Stonecrop is one of the best native plants for arid, desert-like conditions, as they are considered a succulent. Easy to grow and care for, Stonecrop offers flowers in a variety of colors that are rich with nectar to attract all types of pollinators.

Most varieties of Stonecrop offer pastel colors, but some are brighter. When choosing a planting location, select one that has plenty of heat and sun, as this beauty thrives in dry conditions.

When transplanting, amend the soil with an organic compost if necessary to improve the soil’s fertility. A hardy plant, Stonecrop has few problems but does require well-draining soil to prevent rot and mildew.

Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

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Black-Eyed Susan adds color and warmth to your flower garden while attracting butterflies, ladybugs, and other pollinators. The name comes from the brown/purplish spot located in the center of each flower head.

A member of the sunflower family, these beauties reach up top three feet tall and bloom from June through October.

One of the greatest things about Black-Eyed Susan is how easy they are to grow and care for – very little maintenance is required. These plants do grow in part shade but love full sun. They survive a variety of conditions but require fertile soil.

Best Perennials that Attract Butterflies – Zinnias (Zinnia elegans)

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What makes Zinnias so attractive to butterflies and other pollinating insects is the single flower heads that bear a striking resemblance to daisies. The flower, which comes in a wide range of colors, sits on top of a green stem and works well as cut flowers.

When planting Zinnias, know they do better when grown from seed rather than when transplanted. Never plant your seeds until after the last frost passes and plant new seeds every two weeks to extend the blooming season.

Blazing Stars (Liatris)

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Blazing Stars are easy to grow just about anywhere you plant them. The plants grow up to five feet tall and feature grass-like leaves with flowers at the top of tall spikes.

The purple blossoms are thistle-like and bloom from the top down, and foliage stays green until fall, turning a bronze color. These beauties prefer full sun but can adapt to some shade.

They are both drought and cold hardy and adapt to a variety of soil conditions. In addition to attracting butterflies like the Swallowtail, the cut flowers work well in vases throughout the home.

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Thank you for reading our thoughts on the best perennials to attract butterflies. If you found any of our opinions on the best nectar plants helpful, please share our ideas on perennials that attract butterflies with others on Facebook and Pinterest.


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