Finding the Right Pollinator Mix

— Written By

USDA NRCS | 1/15/2019

Do you get tired of preparing a custom seed mix for every person who comes into the office wanting to plant a pollinator garden? Have you looked longingly at the pre-blended wildflower mixes at the garden store or on Amazon.com and thought, “wouldn’t that work for me?” You’re not alone. Field office staff and other partners have asked that same question of their local Plant Materials Centers many times, and the answer is a resounding, “It’s complicated.”

Commercially-produced wildflower seed mixes are readily available and broadly used for attracting pollinators and adding beauty to small gardens and landscapes. These mixtures are popular with landowners because they are pre-mixed and eliminate the guesswork of designing custom mixtures. They also eliminate the need to search for and purchase individual species from multiple vendors to create a seed mix.

Image of flowers

Most commercial seed mixtures are created to cover a wide range of adaptation and may include plants adapted to extremely low precipitation areas like arid deserts as well as plants adapted to wetter environments of montane forests. This range provides some insurance that at least some of the species in the mixture are adapted to a specific site and may thrive. However, a significant number of the species in the mixture are inevitably less likely to be adapted to the planting site and thus represent an unnecessary expense that can be avoided with some prior planning.

The species in the mixtures are selected for their attractiveness to bees, butterflies, and other pollinators and are purportedly well adapted to specific regions or environments. Despite these advantages, suitability of many of the species in the mixes to pollinator plantings for CRP or other NRCS programs is largely unknown. Many species are from North America outside of the target region; others are of Eurasian or African origin. Additionally, some commercial mixes may contain plant species that can become invasive, or the mix may not contain appropriate species to provide pollinator forage throughout the year. The mix may also contain plant species that are attractive to humans but provide little value to the pollinators. Establishment, persistence, and suitability of many of these species to pollinator plantings are poorly understood in this context, and these issues need to be examined before NRCS can recommend commercially designed seed mixes for conservation practices.

Read more about the study.