UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Popular species of perennial flowering plants vary widely in their attractiveness to pollinators, but homeowners and landscape managers who select certain perennial cultivars can support a diverse community of pollinators in their own backyards, according to a new study from a team of Penn State researchers.
Insect pollinators are critical in agriculture and natural ecosystems, but these pollinators have experienced global population declines, largely driven by a loss of flowering plants in their landscapes, which they depend on for food.
"We know that greenspaces such as parks and gardens in many human-modified landscapes have the potential to support very rich pollinator communities, including rare or vulnerable species," said study lead author Emily Erickson, postdoctoral scholar in entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences. "However, urban and suburban pollinator communities tend to lack the diversity they require to be resilient to further disturbances."
Erickson noted that many studies have shown that increasing the availability of attractive flowering plants is one of the most effective and accessible ways to increase pollinator diversity in urban landscapes. "But a key challenge," she said, "is identifying the combinations of plant species that can support and engineer a diverse, and therefore more stable, pollinator community."
Co-author Christina Grozinger, Publius Vergilius Maro Professor of Entomology and director of Penn State's Center for Pollinator Research, explained that in urban and suburban areas, people often select varieties of ornamental plants for their gardens because of their appearance and growth habits.
"Many of these varieties have been developed by breeders to appeal to consumer, rather than pollinator, preference," said Grozinger, who also directs the Insect Biodiversity Center in the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. "There has been concern that these plant varieties are no longer attractive to pollinators.
"Cultivars are bred for variation in characteristics such as structure, color, and bloom size and duration, all of which are known to influence pollinator attraction," she said. "We also know from previous studies that closely related cultivars can vary significantly in their attractiveness to pollinators."
To help optimize the ecological value of urban and suburban greenspaces and develop accurate recommendations for home gardeners and landscapers, the researchers studied 25 cultivars from five plant genera — Agastache (giant hyssop, hummingbird mint); Echinacea (coneflower); Nepeta (catmint); Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan); and Salvia (sage) — that a recent USDA grower survey indicated were commercially popular in the North American floriculture market. They evaluated each variety's attractiveness to pollinators across the growing season for two years at two sites, each of which previously was found to host a diverse community of pollinators.