A report by Mike Belton on our meeting in September 2018 when Marina Christopher spoke on ‘Choice Plants for Pollinators Throughout the Season’.

Marina treated us to a splendid synthesis of her knowledge, experience and beliefs in her talk on Plants for Pollinators, and she brought some plants for sale with her so we might practice what she preaches. Marina is trained in ecology and this foundation informs her approach to gardening, and she includes humans in the web that makes up the environment. She started her nursery, Phoenix Perennial Plants, in 1984 and found that her ideas were labelled as ‘planting weeds’. However, attitudes began to change in the 1990s as more naturalistic styles developed, in part inspired by Piet Oudolf. Today, gardens are promoted as significant havens for wildlife as intensive agriculture dominates the countryside, and much commercial farming depends on pollination by insects. Added to which, pollinators are fascinating to watch.

After briefly touching on the evolution of pollination from the high energy method of wind dispersal, with huge quantities of pollen needed and the random nature of its effectiveness, to the much more efficient use of insects and other creatures, Marina talked of the parallel development of plant attractants and the pollinator’s adaptations. Plant examples included nectar, scent and guiding markings, and pollinator abilities included changes such as longer tongues. In some cases this has made plant and pollinator mutually dependent, so that each is potentially vulnerable to changes such as those in climate.

An intriguing example of this is the link between bees’ sight and the colour of plants. Bees see UV light and are thus attracted to the asters with yellow centres, so don’t waste their energy going to already pollinated flowers because the boss has turned to red, which they do not see. The same sort of change can be seen in horse chestnuts and single roses. Similarly, the same plant can have different adaptations from one place to another. For example, agastache has long tubular flowers in North America to take advantage of hummingbirds while the European types have short, congested flowers visited by bees.

Colchicums are valuable in the autumn.

Symphyotrichum ‘Little Carlow’ showing pollinated and unpollinated flowers.

One often reads about the plight of bees, and it is common to lump all the insect species together, but there are many other pollinating insects to watch out for. Butterflies always attract attention (some, like cabbage white, for the wrong reasons), but there are many more species of moths and hover flies (conspicuously missing last summer), wasps and flies that do useful work. Marina argues persuasively that it is incumbent on gardeners to support this significant part of the environment, and that we will benefit because our gardens will not need the aggressive intervention of chemicals to keep them healthy. To achieve this it is important to provide a steady supply of nectar, for energy, and pollen, for protein, for as much of the year as possible; from the very early bulbs for early flying queen bumbles to late subjects like ivy, although she rated the honey from this source as disgusting. She also made the point that insects, like ourselves, eat food from all around the world, so it is not necessary to restrict one’s garden to native species for the benefit of insects.

The whole was neatly rounded off by Tim Ingram’s vote of thanks, commenting that her ideas are “a new direction of thought that is really significant”.

It is a bit cheeky of me to think that I can add anything to Marina’s talk but I did speak to her afterwards because it is all very well providing all this food for the adult insects but they also need food for juveniles, and habitat to live in. Bees are largely catered for with pollen and nectar, although bumble and solitary types need habitat for overwintering and the next generation, many others need food sources for their juvenile forms and one should maybe think in terms of providing sacrificial plants, though fuchsias for elephant hawk moths might be a step too far. Marina’s succinct answer was, “Do not be too tidy”.

Mike Belton

 

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