8 native plants that pollinators love


Corokias have attractive foliage and flowers, and make great hedges or topiary as well as pollinator food. Corokia buddleioides needs a bit of shelter and is found at the top of the North Island. The wire-netting bush (Corokia cotoneaster) is perfect for exposed localities and dry stony soils. More ornamental varieties with bronze or variegated foliage are often forms of Corokia x virgata but they still attract insects with those starry lemon flowers.

Sophora microphylla. Being furry with an electrostatic charge, bees attract and pick up pollen which they sweep and groom into pollen baskets on their legs for transport, and while kowhai is traditionally a magnet for bird pollination, bumblebees often steal nectar by chewing a hole in the base of the flowers (as they are too fat to squeeze in!) With late winter/early spring blooms, kowhai help support pollinators at a lean time of year too.

Geranium. There are seven native species of geranium with perhaps Geranium traversii being the most showy and spawning several different cultivars. Along with other native flowers such as pimelea and native forget-me-nots, geraniums make useful plants for placing near the front of a garden border, and on raised beds and rockeries - anywhere you can provide a well-drained soil in sun or light shade.

Clematis paniculata. The bush clematis is the showiest of our native clematis and will spill out its exquisite flowers any time from spring to summer, attracting all manner of bees and flies. This can be a vigorous climber, so supply it with the customary cool root run and a stout pergola fence or shrub on which it can ramble and get its head into the sunshine.

Parsonsia heterophylla. There are three species of native jasmine but Parsonsia heterophylla is the most common. It makes a dainty summer-flowering nectar plant not used in our gardens often enough. It likes a shaded root run with its head in the sun so plant in an enriched soil and place a rock over the roots to keep them cool. The juvenile foliage is not that attractive so you may have to wait a few years before the sweet smelling flowers arrive.

Hibiscus trionum. Perhaps our most exotic-looking native perennial, Hibiscus trionum is surprisingly rare in the wild these days, confined to a few coastal localities in the North Island. It's also surprisingly rare in gardens but is easy enough to grow provided you give it good drainage and plenty of sunshine. Plants are short-lived - often annual in habit, but seedlings tend to pop up often enough and fit in well with mixed planting schemes.

Leptospermum scoparium. Though relatively brief in its flowering, manuka is one of the best plants you can grow for pollinators of all kinds. The sheer exuberance of the flowering is what draws in the wildlife. Flowers range from deep reds to dazzling whites and shimmering pinks such as this cultivar 'Keatleyi'. Double manuka flowers are fine to choose as they have open centres which still allow insects to feed on the nectar within.

Hebe 'Wiri Charm'. Hebe is the largest genus of native plants; nearly all 100 or so species occur here and nowhere else. The tight clusters of flowers occur from spring to late summer. Some species, such as the common white roadside shrub Hebe salicifolius, provide nectar over a long period. Hebes are a specially good butterfly plant and all the different cultivars - from groundcovers to small trees - are great for pollinators.

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Most of us want to welcome wildlife into the garden. Who, after all, would turn their back on a butterfly basking in the begonias or not get a buzz (literally) out of a cloud of bees making merry in the marjoram. But wait a minute… what exactly do bees do beyond making us feel like we are some sort of eco warrior?

The bugs – ladybirds, the bees, butterflies, moths and flies – don't all hang out because of us. They come, drawn by greed, to gather up the delicious goodies flowers have to offer, both the dusty yellow pollen which is rich in protein – perfect for feeding young – and possibly more tempting still, the sweet sugary nectar which provide an instant energy hit.

Not all flowering plants produce these goodies for the bugs but the ones that do, do it not out of the kindness of their hearts but to trick them into fertilising their flowers as the bees squeeze, shake and rub themselves at the dinner table, spreading male pollen onto ripe female stigmas. It's a sort of progressive meal with casual sex thrown in.

But that job of pollination is more important than you think. It underpins our food production, and ensures the annuals and biennials in your garden seed about and bloom next year.

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While most of the grains and cereals of the world are wind pollinated, it's reckoned that 80 per cent of all crops require insect pollinators if they are to set seed and fruit. When you think about it, even cows and sheep need successful pollination of plants such as clover and other nitrogen-fixing legumes to keep their grasslands nutrient rich.

Mecaela Lynch 123/RF SUPPLIED Tony Wills, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikicommons Pjt56, Wikicommons

Stocking up to feed their larvae is why bumblebees are interested in pollen. The way they gather it is remarkable: the foraging female bumblebees grab a flower and then vibrate their wings at an almighty pace to dislodge the pollen from the anthers. Clouds of pollen swirls around the flower and some falls right on top of the target, kicking off the fertilisation routine. Tomatoes and other solanaceous crops simply love this kind of vibratory attention – that’s why bumblebees are commercially available to gardeners and commercial tomato growers alike.

The fact that butterflies regularly visit flowers (for a quick feed of nectar) is a great indicator that their actions are beneficial for the distribution of pollen. The unfurled proboscis constantly probes to find the nectar source, gathering the grains by accident, while the feet pick up a fair amount of pollen too. Curiously, those butterfly feet are also able to "smell" or "taste" the flowers and nectar. Different butterfly species prefer different types of flowers.

Our native bees tend to sip nectar too, usually from flowers that have an open nectar reservoir (manuka, pohutukawa and such species), but their real intention is gathering pollen to provide for their larvae, deep inside their tunnels in the soil. Judging from the numbers of native bees in late spring and summer, their pollination potential must be considerable in the New Zealand landscape. We have a couple of dozen species in just about all the major native habitats, right into the alpine zones of our mountains, and some have adapted themselves well to exotic plant life too.

Most people don't recognise hoverflies as flies. They hover here, there and everywhere, usually near or above pollen-rich flowers. The cool thing is that some of these hoverfly species lay their eggs among aphid colonies, where the fly’s larvae (let’s call them maggots) will feast on these small sucking insects. Blowflies are also implicated in pollination services. The brown variety is particularly active in urban gardens, especially when the resident dog is let out at regular times of the day. Handy things, those blowflies, and very proficient at multi-tasking.

The narcissus-bulb fly maggot can do some damage, but the elegant, adult fly is a pollinator that resembles a small bumblebee, with similar colouring and fuzzy hair. Experienced gardeners know that adult flies differ from adult bumblebees in a few important ways: the flies only have one pair of wings (most other insects have two pairs) and they don’t sting, which allows you to gently catch them with your hands and impress the kids with your daring trick!

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And while we sow vegetables such as carrots, spinach, radish and tomatoes – and don't need or want them to set seed – without pollination and seed setting, the specialists who supply us and the farmers with seeds would go out of business.

According to Dr Brad Howlett from Plant and Food Research, New Zealand is a big player on the world stage when it comes to producing new, top class food seed varieties.

He explains that while the beekeepers in New Zealand are doing a good job managing the potentially devastating effects of varroa mite, farmers still need to bring in managed colonies of pollinators every year for crops such as avocado, berries and kiwifruit to get fruit set, and there is potential for serious competition for the available hives.


Honeybee (Apis mellifera).

Large garden bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus).

Wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum).

Native bee (Leioproctus fulvescens).

Native bees (Lasioglossum sordidum).

Hover fly (Melangyna novaezelandiae).

Common wasp (Vespula vulgaris).

German wasp (Vespula germanica).

Drone fly (Eristalis tenax).

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris).

Short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus).

Small garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum).

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In our gardens, we can play our part, encouraging as many insect pollinators as possible. Not just for our benefit – the pollination of our orchards, berries and squash – but for the ecosystem as a whole. Honeybees are great at pollination and numerous, but like ladybirds and bumblebees, they are merely welcome exotics doing a good job.

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What we need to change, says Brad, is our attitude to the less glamorous native insects that are equally important in the pollination game. Dingy moths, hoverflies that uncomfortably masquerade as wasps yet cannot sting, beetles and flies all play their part pollinating our native flowers. Some, like the hoverfly, even have a second trick up their sleeve – their larvae vacuum up dastardly aphids and caterpillars as they go. Yet we don't seem to welcome them as gladly as we do a catwalking butterfly.

And wouldn't it be exciting to feel by our planting that we are encouraging our truly native bees? Of the few species of native bee, most live solitary lives and are extremely reluctant to sting – unlike honeybees and bumblebees. So fill your patch with flowers, especially native ones more in rhythm with the lifecycles of native bugs. Perhaps provide a bank of sunny soil for them to dig into and nest too.

Though relatively brief in its flowering, manuka is one of the best plants you can grow for pollinators of all kinds.

Though relatively brief in its flowering, manuka is one of the best plants you can grow for pollinators of all kinds.

The best way to draw in pollinators of all ilks is relatively easy – plant as many flower types as you can. Put them in an insect-friendly place – a sunny, sheltered spot is ideal.

Avoid the fussy double flowers which insects find hard to climb into and spread the season of flowering wide. While manuka and metrosideros may be great in spring, don't forget rata, hebe and hoheria for summer and beyond.

A diversity of flower shapes and sizes is important; colour less so (red flowers tend to be designed for pollinating birds; flies and bees prefer yellow, orange and white).

Hebe is the largest genus of native plants; nearly all 100 or so species occur here and nowhere else. The tight clusters ...

Hebe is the largest genus of native plants; nearly all 100 or so species occur here and nowhere else. The tight clusters of flowers occur from spring to late summer.

Research in Britain suggest that pollinators do not often discriminate between native or exotic flowers but it's always nice to support your local flora by choosing plants suited to home soils and climate.

Make a note of the natives you see in your locality that are alive with insect life. Cordylines, flax, hebe, hoheria, olearia and tea tree are a good basic starting kit.

Forest and Bird has more information on commonly seen pollinators. Download Dr Brad Howlett's list of great native plant species to support pollinator diversity here.

 - NZ Gardener


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