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Behind the Scenes: New Pollinator Garden

The Zoo’s long-time prairie dog habitat has been renovated for new residents. After the prairie dogs’ advanced age required them to move behind the scenes for specialized care, the iconic area was transformed into a pollinator garden to provide a safe space for migrating and local wildlife. Hear directly from Zoo Gardener Andrew Lyell about the native plant choices he made for the new space, and learn what steps you can take to make your outdoor domain wildlife friendly. 

Bringing Back the Bees

Planting a garden is an act of courage that looks to the future and sometimes challenges nature itself. Cultivating plants means taking charge of the very elements: managing soil, water, and exposure. Mother Nature unleashes some extraordinary conditions on Southern California— long-term drought, seasonal heat waves, wildfires, insect invasions, and drying winds. Add to that habitat destruction by people.

Yet our native plants are survivors and persist. They are vital, because they are the foundation of our unique ecosystems. Want to see birds in your garden? Grow native plants. Want bees and butterflies? Grow a native plant garden.

Most of the plants you see in this pollinator garden are regionally local. Some grow naturally in this area of the Los Angeles basin—you might encounter them in the hills just up the road and across the river.

Many insects perform pollination. Flowers attract flies, beetles, moths, and wasps with the rewards of nectar and pollen. As these visitors forage, some pollen sticks to their bodies and they carry it to other flowers, fertilizing them so they can set seed. Some plants are better at enticing visitors than others. Those that offer ample flowers will draw more pollinators and encourage them to stick around. The floral bounty also provides pollinators with opportunities to encounter potential mates. So, providing host plants for the next generation of pollinators is also essential. Once you start seeing eggs and larvae, you can feel pleased to know that you have done something special for these important insects!

One of my first native bee sightings was a shiny green sweat bee on a buckwheat plant in my home garden. I quickly realized how frequently that one plant was visited by other bees as well as moths and beetles. It was feeding a legion of insects, which in turn attracted such predators as wasps and birds, thus providing habitat for a small ecosystem. In the Zoo’s pollinator garden, I planted two buckwheat species: Santa Cruz Island buckwheat and shasta sulfur buckwheat in the hope that they will attract many insects.

Salvia spathacea certainly lives up to its common name, hummingbird sage, and attracts a lot of these tiny avian visitors. It is a low growing plant that sends out rhizomes underground and will eventually become a dense mat of flowering happiness, feeding lots of hummers. Deep rose-pink flower spikes are held above the leaves from winter to spring, just waiting for a visit. These plants are also very aromatic, one of the sweetest-smelling leaves in my opinion.

White sage (Salvia apiana) is found in very hot and dry regions of Southern California. This intensely fragrant herb lingers in the air as you brush against it. Oils in the foliage are the source of its distinctive aroma. The plant produces tall floral spikes, with individual flowers opening successively up the stalk. This is one of the few plants I have watched a male carpenter bee (Xylocopa sonorina) also known as a teddy bear bee, return to for several weeks. I can’t say for sure it was the same fella, but he seemed to give me a knowing look during our regular encounters.

Another favorite plant of mine is yarrow, or Achillea millefolium. This mat-forming ground cover produces a bounty of flowers for long periods, making it extremely attractive to pollinators such as beetles and moths. Verbena lilacina is a shrub that also flowers heavily for most of the year, attracting a variety of pollinators.

Also included in this garden are some succulent cliff dwellers native to California: Dudleya. Two species are planted on the slope to help retain the soil and add a bit of brightness. The chalky white color of their leaves makes them stand out like a beacon. Recently, the genus Dudleya has made quite a name for itself. The plants have become the object of collectors, so they are being poached from their wild homes and sold illegally. Fortunately, the California State Assembly addressed this by passing AB223, which imposes strong fines and other penalties for stealing wild Dudleyas. It is a small victory for the plants, but it is a start.

Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) packs a big wallop. Not only is it a favored nectar plant of many types of butterflies and bees, this very fragrant shrub with its minty aroma is excellent at reducing soil erosion by spreading low and wide across the ground. During its bloom season, it is covered with flower clusters that attract an array of pollinators, especially native bees. Be on the lookout for mason bees and blue orchard bees buzzing around this plant in search of nectar and pollen. 

Fragrant pitcher sage (Lepechinia fragrans) is one of the heavyweights here. It produces a massive number of flowers that are attractive to hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators, which in turn attracts predators such as spiders, lizards, mantids, and many others. Keep an eye on this one for a big floral show.

Milkweed (genus Asclepias) is one of the few plants that monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) larvae feed on. If you include this plant in your garden, you will hopefully be blessed with fluttering adults in search of food sources for the next generation. The plant produces toxic compounds in its leaves that make it distasteful to other foragers. Monarch caterpillars have evolved a resistance to these compounds, which makes the wee critters distasteful to predators. The plants also produce lots of flowers that many insects find desirable. This nectar source will entice several butterfly species as well as wasps, including the spectacular tarantula hawk.

More than 100 different species of milkweed are found in North America, and it is important for the health of monarch butterflies to plant the regionally native ones, such as white stemmed or wax milkweed (Asclepias albicans), narrow leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), and ajamete or rush milkweed (Asclepias subulata)—all of which have been planted in this garden. During the winter and early spring months the narrow leaf milkweed is dormant and looks as though it is dead, but new growth arrives quickly after the rains, and, with it, the invitation for butterflies to reproduce.

As plain and simple as grasses seem, they are actually a very important part of all landscapes. Not the turf grasses used in lawns, but native grasses. What may seem like dull and commonplace weeds are valuable habitat plants for insects. Grasses serve as larval food for several butterfly species such as skippers (family Hesperiidae), and numerous bird species feast on the seed stalks when they ripen. For this garden, I chose blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) and alkali Sacaton Grass (Sporobolus airoides) not only to enhance the beauty of the landscape but specifically to attract skippers, which I haven’t been seeing much of for the past few years. When I was a child, I used to delight in catching these small orange and brown butterflies. Then I would quickly release them and enjoy watching them return to feed on the flowers.

Putting this garden together has been a labor of love. It includes some of my favorite plants that I appreciate during the hikes I take throughout the year. Walking among these plants gives one a feeling of place, of being in a peaceful space while enjoying the natural beauty that our region has to offer. The plants are primarily found in the coastal sage scrub ecosystem, with a bit of crossover into the oak woodland and chaparral ecosystems. These habitats are distinctive to Southern California and the plants in them are specifically adapted to our warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters. Some of these adaptations include summer dormancy in buckwheat; the deep roots of native grasses that gather precious water from beneath the soil surface; the tiny leaves found on milkweed that help reduce water loss; the pale leaves of white sage that reflect heat; and the hairy leaves of fragrant pitcher and hummingbird sages that reduce water loss through evaporation.

The plants placed in this garden were selected based on several factors. The first consideration was the attractiveness to pollinators. They are also heat tolerant and require little water. They produce profuse flowers with nectar and pollen for a long period of time. They don’t become massive and overpower a space with their size, so they are suitable for home gardens.

You may notice the logs in the garden. These were also carefully chosen to serve an important purpose. The branches were harvested from a natural area on Zoo grounds and are from native trees. Even the dead plants are local! They have been placed here to mimic a natural environment. Dead and dying plants play an important role in the grand scheme of life. Downed limbs can persist in the landscape and provide habitat for a wide variety of living things. Many insects feed on the decaying wood, including isopods (also known as roly-polies or woodlice) and earwigs; some bee species will bore holes into the wood and deposit eggs in the tunnels; birds will perch on branches looking for their next meal or even insert seeds such as acorns to feed on later; lizards will sun themselves and put on territorial displays. My favorite example of how deadfall supports biodiversity is “nurse logs,” which nurture other plants that grow and develop in the rotting wood. Fallen limbs are micro-ecosystems that provide habitat for local wildlife, recycle the nutrients of the dead branch, help nurse newly established seedlings, reduce soil erosion, enhance soil fertility and soil moisture, and help store carbon.

Inorganic components of a garden are important, too. Large stones were placed here to help retain the soil on the steep grade. They are also useful as places for small critters to catch the heat from the sun to warm themselves or to have a moment to rest and a bite to eat. Stones like these help to create microclimate zones that are utilized by several organisms.

I’ve noticed in many gardens that different flower colors attract specific pollinators, especially the color red. In this garden, red blooms are produced by California fuchsia (Epilobium canum) and hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea). I have witnessed aerial battles between hummingbirds during the flowering periods of these plants due to the birds’ fondness for them. I have even been strafed when I got too close to the plant while a bird was feeding from it. Epilobium is one of the last plants to flower in the summer when other plants are going dormant due to lack of water. This is when it erupts in a riot of red tubular blooms, perfectly shaped for the hummers to feed from.

How can we help the butterflies, birds, and bees? Create more gardens, especially ones that include native plants, specifically those from your locality. Plant a variety of plants that flower for long periods and at different times of the year. Leave small patches of undisturbed bare soil for ground dwellers to use as homes. Use fewer chemicals in the garden. Volunteer with local agencies that help to improve natural habitats. The birds will thank you with their songs; the butterflies will thank you with their presence; and the bees will buzz from flower to flower in the ages-old dance of pollination.