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In the kitchen, herbs add flavor and depth to nearly any dish. But aside from adding unique flavors to your food and beauty in your garden, herbs can also serve other essential roles in your garden such as:
- attracting pollinators who will also pollinate your other food plants (flower pollen provides fat and protein and nectar provides a sugar-rich carbohydrate),
- serving as host plants for pollinators’ offspring, and
- attracting predatory insects to help control pest insect populations.
Most herbs are also fairly easy to grow, especially long-lived perennial herbs that get larger and stronger from year to year. (If you’ve ever seen a giant 10+ year old rosemary plant, you get the idea.)
The same intense flavors and smells that make herbs useful as a spice for humans are also good olfactory defenses against insects that might otherwise eat them. Just like you, an insect might enjoy a taste of rosemary, but not a meal full.
You just need to make sure you know basic care instructions for the particular herb you want to grow AND are certain that it can grow in your climate zone.
The other important thing to know is that there are various stages of an herb’s life cycle. During the period in which it’s putting on vegetative growth, pollinators will have no reason to forage the plant (although they may be a host plant for pollinator caterpillars at that stage). However, once your herbs start flowering, expect to see a diversity of pollinators foraging from dawn to dusk.
Now, are you ready to grow herbs for both your kitchen and your pollinators?
Top 18 garden herbs to attract pollinators
In alphabetical order, here are the top 18 garden herbs you can grow to attract pollinators:
1. Anise Hyssop
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is a gorgeous long-lived perennial herb in the mint family. Don’t worry, it can readily reseed, but it doesn’t take over your garden beds like certain other mint family plants.
Gardeners can choose from a number of attractive anise hyssop cultivars. Our favorites feature green and purple leaves growing on compact plants about 24 inches tall and wide. In the summer, each plant will send up tall, showy flower stalks covered in pink-purple flowers for months at a time.
Your hyssop plants will positively buzz with affection from all the happy bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and skippers that visit them. Hyssop flowers are also a favorite with hummingbird clearwing moths (Hemaris thysbethe), so-named because they look almost identical to hummingbirds.
Hyssop leaves and flowers are both delicious in the kitchen. They offer a sweet anise-like flavor; not minty at all. They’re delightful used fresh or as a dried herb. The plant has also been used medicinally for thousands of years to soothe sore throats and coughs.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a tender annual that thrives outdoors in spring and summer, where the blooms will draw bees and other important pollinators.
This lovely herb is aromatic and slightly sweet. If you’re adventurous, you can try your hand at various basil cultivars, including those that taste and smell like mint, lemon, anise, cloves, chocolate, or cinnamon. Varieties with purple leaves are also valued for their ornamental value.
Basil is one of the most versatile culinary herbs, used to complement the flavor of meat, cheese, eggs, sauces, salads, vegetables, and of course, Italian cuisine. Herbalists claim basil tea is good for digestion, and will also relieve stress and calm the mind. Try basil tea flavored with a little lemon and/or honey.
No, catnip (Nepeta cataria) isn’t only for felines. This mint family plant might excite and stimulate cat brains, but when made into a tasty tea, it actually has a calming effect on humans and is used as a sleep aid.
If you have cats, they’ll go ga-ga for fresh catnip leaves. Even if you don’t, catnip makes a beautiful landscape herb. When it matures, it sends up showy stalks of white flowers that insects absolutely love.
Catnip is a perennial in temperate zones, and it will also re-seed easily. Pull young plants that happen to grow from seed in unwanted spots.
Onion chives (Allium schoenoprasum) and garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are distinct species of alliums, but they are both wonderful in the kitchen — and as pollinator attractors.
As their common names imply, garlic chives have more of a garlic flavor whereas onion chives have more of an onion flavor. You only use the green foliage of garlic chives whereas you can use both the greens and bulbs of onion chives.
As for the flowers: onion chives produce a round ball of small purple flowers (like a miniature pompom) whereas garlic chives produce a dainty upright bouquet of gorgeous white flowers.
Pollinators love the flowers of both species. Interestingly, native wasps seem particularly fond of garlic chive flowers. Yes, wasps are pollinators as well as predators.
Perhaps due to its association with Latin American cuisine which is heavy on peppers, tomatoes and beans, cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is often associated with warm weather. Yet cilantro is actually native to Asia and Europe and grows best in cold/cool weather. (It can survive uncovered well into the teens but quickly goes to bolt once temperatures regularly reach 70°F.)
Yes, cilantro is the same herb as coriander. In US grocery stores, coriander typically refers to the mature seed whereas cilantro typically refers to the leaves. If you grow cilantro, you’ll have access to perhaps the most delicious part of the plant that you’ll never find in a grocery store: the tender young green seeds BEFORE they harden. The flavor is a combination of cilantro and fruit — amazing pickled like little capers or added to salsas.
The clusters of delicate white cilantro flowers on your plants will buzz with tiny native bees, syrphid flies, and other small pollinators equipped to forage the flowers’ dainty structure.
Cilantro is a short-lived annual, but well worth planting every year.
Pretty much everyone is familiar with dill (Anethum graveolens), even if they don’t have a garden. Just try to imagine pickled cucumbers without dill!
Dill is a relatively short-lived annual. In warmer climate regions, it’s long since gone to seed and died before the first ripe cucumber of the season, but dill seeds pack a ton of flavor to bring pickled cukes to life.
At maturity, dill produces showy clusters of yellow flowers that will positively buzz with pollinators, large and small. Lacewings, ladybugs, hoverflies, braconid wasps, tachinid flies, and more… If dill’s flower structure looks familiar, that’s likely due to its close relationship with parsley, celery, carrots and other umbellifers.
A common dill “pest” happens to be the caterpillar of one of nature’s most beautiful pollinators: Black swallowtail butterflies. So dill flowers provide food for pollinators while the leaves play host to the caterpillars of a beloved butterfly. That’s pollinator-friendly!
Oh, and people used to think dill scared away witches, so if you have a problem with witches in your garden, plant dill!
Native to the Mediterranean region, fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is an attractive herb with feathery, fernlike leaves and umbrella-shaped flower heads. Sound familiar?
Fennel is an umbellifer, like dill (#6 on this list), and the leaves and flowers of the two plants look quite similar. However, fennel offers a distinct anise/licorice-like flavor.
You can grow cultivars of short and stocky Florence fennel, bred for its swollen bulb-like stem. Florence fennel is grown like an annual although it’s technically a perennial. Or you can grow the classic perennial fennel grown for its leaves, pollen, and seeds. These plants can easily grow 5′ tall or taller.
Fennel’s tiny, nectar-rich blooms attract a variety of beneficial insects that feed on spider mites, aphids, and other pests. Bees and butterflies love fennel, too. As with dill, keep an eye out for Black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars on your fennel leaves in the summer.
Fennel tea, rich in melatonin, may lower stress and help you fall asleep at night.
If you’ve ever seen or smelled a field of lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) in bloom, you’ll never forget it. Nor will nearby pollinators. Lavender is so beautiful it even has a color named after it!
The herb is also foundational to many cuisines — the French herbes de Provence being chief among them. The leaves and purple flowers are both used in the kitchen and for their medicinal properties.
Lavender grows best in Mediterranean climates. In the humid southeast, you’ll have the best luck growing lavender in pots that drain easily. In the summer as flowers emerge, you’ll hear a buzz of pollinators around your lavender plants.
9. Lemon balm
Any list of pollinator-attracting herbs would be incomplete without lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) included. The leaves of this mounding, perennial mint family plant taste surprisingly like lemons, hence its common name.
In the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, people had a great cultural reverence for bees, whose honey and wax was an important part of daily life and commerce. This reverence was reflected in their religious beliefs.
The Ephesians believed the honeybee was the form the human soul took when descending from the Goddess of Earth and Nature, Artemis. The great goddess was the queen bee, the Earth Mother, and her priestesses were called “Melissai,” from which the Latin name for lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, was derived. This is also why the Greek word for honeybee is “melissa.”
The expert beekeepers in Greek society revered any plant that could keep their bees happy, and lemon balm served this role perfectly. They planted the herb near their bee hives to help keep their honeybees well fed from the plant’s small nectar-rich flowers and to help prevent the bees from swarming.
For these reasons, the famed Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – AD 79), said bees were “delighted with this herb above all others.”
If you’re a modern beekeeper, lemon balm is a plant you’ll want to grow near your hives!
Warning to new gardeners: mint (mentha) plants are flavorful, easy to grow perennial plants BUT they can take over your garden beds in no time. Consider growing mint in pots/containers instead or you may have a mint garden with few other plants within a few years.
Peppermint (Mentha × piperita) and spearmint (Mentha spicata) are perhaps the most popular mints, but there are a huge range of colors and flavors to be found in mentha plants, especially given all the new hybrids that have been cultivated over the past century.
Yes, mint plants also produce flowers. Mint flowers look very similar to basil flowers: upright stalks covered in tiny flower clusters. Bees LOVE foraging mint flowers.
11. Monarda/bee balm
Monarda is a genus of flowering plants in the mint family that are also called bergamot and bee balm. As you might expect with the common name “bee balm,” pollinators LOVE monarda, whose showy flower stalks extend 2-3′ into the air.
Expect to see both hummingbirds and hummingbird clearwing moths foraging your monarda plants at the same time. Monarda is native to North America, so these mutualistic native pollinator-native plant relationships trace far back into history.
In colder climate zones, monarda can be grown as a summer annual. There are plenty of perennial monarda species to choose from. Despite being in the mint family, monarda doesn’t run as aggressively as true mentha (mint) plants.
Monarda isn’t just for the pollinators though… This unique herb tastes like a combination of spearmint and oregano, adding unique flavors to savory dishes. It also was prized by Native Americans for its purported medicinal benefits.
Fun fact: oregano (Origanum vulgare) is in the mint family. If you’ve ever grown oregano and seen how quickly it can crawl out of a garden bed and into a garden path, you might have suspected as much.
This famed Mediterranean herb is most often associated with Italian cuisine, but it’s used in foods throughout the region. Unlike many herbs, the flavor of oregano is actually improved and intensified when the leaves are dried.
A perennial in warm climates, oregano is typically grown as an annual in cooler climates here in the US. Oregano sends up stalks with dense clusters of small, gorgeous purple-white flowers that your pollinators will swoon over.
If you’re feeling disappointed that cilantro doesn’t grow well in summer, don’t despair. Picha (Porophyllum linaria) to the rescue!
Pipicha actually IS native to Mexico and it actually LOVES hot weather. Even better, pipicha’s flavor is as close to cilantro as you’ll find in any other plant. The main difference is it’s probably even more intense than cilantro, so go sparingly the first time you use it in the kitchen until you get an intuition about its flavor.
Pipicha grows to about 2′ tall, then produces an abundance of smallish blue-purple flowers that are a big hit with bees. Pipicha is also an annual.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a bushy, drought-tolerant, pest-resistant plant with woody stems and fragrant, needle-like leaves. This evergreen herb is easy to get along with in most climates as it tolerates winter temps as low as 20°F. In warmer climates, rosemary can reach heights of 5′, but it’s easily pruned to keep growth in check.
Bees love rosemary’s nectar-rich, bluish-purple flowers which bloom continuously throughout spring and summer, and sometimes through the winter. The decorative blooms and attractive foliage are often used in floral arrangements.
In the kitchen, rosemary adds flavor to a variety of savory dishes, such as meats, poultry, casseroles, stews, and soups. Rosemary is rich in iron, calcium, vitamin B6, antioxidants, and also has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial qualities.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) is a familiar herb with a strong aroma and a distinctive, rich flavor. Growing this hardy plant is a cinch in full-sun, dry, well-drained soil. However, sage doesn’t perform quite as well in humid climates (read: deep south).
Sage is a perennial, but the flavor declines after 4-5 years, after which replanting is recommended. Many garden pests don’t appreciate the strong aroma and fuzzy foliage, but bees love the masses of sweet blooms. Sage also attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.
Sage is used to flavor foods such as meats, vegetables, stuffing (hello Thanksgiving dinner), and sauces, but keep in mind that a little of this pungent herb goes a long way.
Sage tea with honey and lemon is surprisingly delicious. The tea may also improve digestion and lower bad cholesterol. Sage is rich in vitamins B6 and C, as well as potassium, calcium, and iron.
Shiso (Perilla frutescens) is another mint family plant beloved by pollinators. Native to southeast Asia, you might have encountered it in Asian restaurants (it’s amazing on sushi).
Shiso leaves vary from red to green, depending on the cultivar. Shiso’s flavor is quite distinctive: it’s like a combination of mint, basil, and hyssop rolled into one.
A warning about shiso: although it’s an annual plant, it readily reseeds and is even considered an invasive in some places. At maturity, the plant sends up tall flower stalks (total plant height about 3-4′) that are covered in small white flowers.
Bees especially seem drawn to shiso flowers, although they’ll certainly have company from other pollinating insects.
You may have seen stevia in the zero calorie sugar substitute section at the grocery store, but we’re referring to the actual plant that sweet powder comes from: Stevia rebaudiana.
Stevia is an annual herb that grows to about 2-3′ in height. Its stems are covered in 1-2″ elongated leaves that are 200-300 times sweeter than sugar. That’s sweet!
Throw a few diced stevia leaves into a mixed green salad with spicy/bitter greens like arugula for some flavor-balancing wow. Aaron (GrowJourney’s cofounder) likes to chew on fresh stevia leaves while eating a handful of Aronia berries (aka chokeberries) which are famously tart. The two flavors combine wonderfully.
In the late summer through early fall after almost all other plants have finished flowering, stevia puts on an abundance of small white flowers that pollinators love — especially honeybees. This provides a great food source before cold sets in.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is another mint family plant that’s achieved international garden & kitchen fame. Thyme has a mounding growth habit and looks beautiful spilling out of pots or over rock ledges in garden beds.
Thyme’s tiny leaves are packed with flavor and are a staple in European, Middle Eastern, and North African cuisines. It’s is a short-lived perennial that can thrives in hot/dry climates, but it tolerates deep freezes equally well.
In the summer, established plants will produce copious amounts of dainty white or light purple flowers (color varies by cultivar). Take a close look and you’ll spot numerous small pollinators, including many species of native bees and parasitoid wasps.
Get growing, with pollinator-friendly herbs!
When it comes to growing herbs, you really can’t go wrong; most herbs are hardy, durable plants that grow best without a lot of fussing and fretting. Here’s to many years of growing useful, pollinator-friendly herbs in your garden!
This article was co-written by Mary Dyer. Mary grew up on her family’s wheat and cattle ranch in the isolated high desert region of Eastern Oregon. Currently, she lives in a tiny town on the windswept Columbia River Plateau. Mary has been a gardener for many years. She holds degrees in anthropology, sociology, and nonfiction writing, and is an Oregon State University Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. When she isn’t working or gardening, she is an avid reader, and enjoys playing the piano, banjo, and mandolin. Mary and her husband are parents of two grown children. They are dedicated community volunteers, and they love spending time with their rescued greyhound and rowdy
labradoodle, Raven and Gus.
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