The Shape of Flowers

Amsonia flower

The tubular flowers of Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana) flowers attract hummingbirds as well as a variety of long-tongued native bees like carpenter bees as well as the Hummingbird Moth and a variety of Butterflies

Attracting pollinators and beneficial insects is an often cited reason for planting native plants. Dwindling numbers of honey bees  and  monarchs makes the news and people want to help by planting the food they like – flowers!

As we know there are more insects than honey bees and monarch butterflies and many of them face equal peril.  In fact insect numbers are in decline globally.  As Doug Tallamy says:

If insects were to disappear, so would nearly all flowering plants and the food webs they support. The extinction of reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals would inexorably follow. Without insects, the rapid decomposition of organic matter that allows for nutrient recycling and plant growth would shut down. The implications for human survival should be obvious.

Diversify your gardens to diversify the insect life within your gardens.  So many plant selections are based on whats popular or what is readily available (read: easier to grow/ship/propagate) in the trade limiting what is planted and limiting the availability of plants to insects.

One easy way to ensure diversity in your landscape in both plants and insects, besides stopping the use of insecticides, without having to do a ton of research on who is attracted to what is to look at flower shape and flower cluster arrangement.

Zizia aurea

Tiny yellow flowers make up the umbels of Zizia aurea, Golden Alexander. The ant here is likely collecting nectar, ants are not known for their pollination prowess.

Color also, of course, is a factor in attracting insects, but if you have many colors of flowers but the flowers are all the same shape, or bloom at the same time, or are at the same height in the garden, you are limiting the insects that can benefit from your garden.

Butterfly on Vernonia

Butterflies will feed on a variety of flower shapes and colors like these of New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)

A boring or unappealing flower to us may be the next best thing to insects in your garden. The homely flowers of mountain mints are often overlooked by gardeners. The combination of the aggressive genetics of this mint family plant combined with less than show-stopping flowers makes this plant easy to overlook as an option in a landscape. But if attracting insects to your gardens is your goal this plant is a must-have. Insects cannot seem to stay away from these flowers.

Butterfly on Mountain Mint

Butterfly on Slender Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium)

Bees on Mountain Mint

Butterflies and Bees enjoying the less-than-showy flowers of Short-toothed Mountain Mint (Pycnanethum muticum)

Butterfly on Mountain Mint

By simply ensuring you have a diversity of each of these you can ensure you are supporting a diversity of insects in your landscape.  In many instances, insects are specialists – preferring a particular shape flower – wings and legs and mouthparts modified for the purpose of nectar and pollen extraction that particular plant.


Chrysoganum virginianum, Goldenstar seem to be a favorite of those bee-mimicking hoverflies.

Think about long-tubed flowers for those long-tongued bees and the unfurling proboscis of a butterfly. Think small flowers in clusters for ants and small beneficial wasps. Think wide open flatter flowers as landing pads for some of the larger insects such as those pollinating beetles.  Be sure to vary flowering height in the garden as well.

Baptisia australis flower

Flowers of Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis) are no challenge for Queen Bumblebees.  These ladies have the strength to force open the petals to access pollen and nectar within.

Wasp on Solidago

Get to know your pollinators. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds are just some of the many pollinators and beneficial insects. Consider this paper wasp on Goldenrod (Solidago)


We may take for granted that if we design our gardens with a diversity of flower shapes and locations, inflorescence structures, bloom times and colors we will attract a diversity of insects into the garden. It is a no-briner right? Our habits, trends and personal preferences may get in the way of this – not only for particular flowers but for particular insects.  And if butterflies and honeybees are more generalists and other insects need specific flowers, why not plant what the specialists need knowing the generalists will benefit as well? Try something new, seek out the underused and add it to the diversity of the garden.

Blue Eyed Grass

Halictine bees, Bumblebees and other native bees and pollinating flies seek nectar and pollen from the flowers of Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium)


PS –  for something a little different on specific shapes to attract pollinators – check out this article on “Dutch designer Matilde Boelhouwer has designed a series of artificial flowers that turn rain into sugar water, to serve as emergency food sources for city-dwelling insect pollinators.”

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