When Pollinator Gardens Naturalize

August 17, 2021

By Angela Sisson

Purple flowers of Wild Bergamot in a field

One measure of a successful, sustainable pollinator garden is when the plants start to spread outside the original area—when the plants naturalize to another nearby location. As is the case with my meadows where the plants have started to spread to a field several hundred feet away.

About 15 years ago I started planting wildflower meadows from seed. These meadows have gone through many changes over the years. The early annual species are long gone and the long-lived species have settled in and matured. As I’ve watched some dramatic changes unfold in the meadows, a nearby field was going through changes as well–albeit more subtle at first.

Hummingbird moth alighting on bergamot flowerThe field was never seeded and only managed with annual or biannual mowing (brush hogging) in order to control various invasive species and to prevent woody plants from encroaching. Some native flowers such as New England aster, various goldenrods, and Black-eyed Susan were already established along with both native and pasture grasses. All-in-all it was a pretty healthy field but nothing too dramatic in the way of flowering. In recent years, however, I noticed that one of my meadow species, wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) a particular favorite of hummingbird moths, has started to spread through the field. A few other flowers, including spiderwort and coneflower, had also moved from the meadow into the field.

Monarch caterpillar on butterfly weed with orange flowerThe other day, I spotted a flash of neon orange in the field—the distinctive flower of butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). It was a first. For some reason that one milkweed provided more proof than thousands of wild bergamot, proof that the meadow seeds were successfully spreading on their own. The reason probably has to do with the fact that wild bergamot spreads easily by seed and can be short-lived. Whereas butterfly milkweed does not spread easily, is often difficult to establish, though once established is very long-lived. That one milkweed will return year after year—an orange beacon for me to seek out while checking for pollinators and other meadow plants which may have migrated into the field. (Note that butterfly milkweed looks so different from common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) that most people don’t realize it’s a milkweed. But both species are in the milkweed genus (Asclepias) and milkweeds are the only host of monarch caterpillars.)

The more we plant for pollinators, the more the plants spread on their own, creating even more pathways for pollinators. Join the Wallkill Valley Pollinator Pathway, and help spread the plants for the pollinators.