Plant a Native Pollinator Garden

Milkweed at Tidmarsh 1140 by Elaine Abrams
Milkweed at Tidmarsh © Elaine Abrams

Native plants support pollinators such as hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies, but they also create a foundation for the entire local food chain. Many insects eat only native plants as larvae, and most birds rely on insects for part of their life. Even backyard seed-eating birds like chickadees and finches raise their young almost exclusively on caterpillars.

Because backyards and lawn grass occupy over 40 million acres of the US, homeowners have the collective power to conserve biodiversity with their landscaping choices. Replacing lawns with native plants and avoiding yard chemicals are important ways to strengthen local ecosystems, one backyard at a time.

Elements of a Pollinator-Friendly Yard

Host & Nectar Plants

While bees and butterflies feed on the nectar of native flowers, providing food for them is only the first step. Caterpillars and larvae feed on leaves, and many rely on a narrow range of plants that they’re uniquely adapted to feeding on ("host plants"). Host plants can include shrubs and large trees like viburnums or oaks—in addition to perennials that also serve as nectar plants, like milkweeds and asters.

Nesting & Overwintering Habitat

Small, exposed patches of sand and mud are great for pollinators. Some ground-nesting insects like harmless digger bees and sweat bees will use them as breeding habitat, and butterflies like to gather on wet mud to lap up water and minerals.

Because some beneficial insects spend the winter as larvae or eggs inside plant stems or under the leaf litter, it's best to hold off on raking and cutting back stems in the fall. Postponing these activities until 2+ weeks after the last spring frost will give these insects a chance to come back for another year!

Caution with Yard Chemicals

Using insecticides in or near a pollinator garden can erase the benefit of native landscaping in the first place. Weigh the ecological risks and benefits of any yard fertilizers or herbicides carefully, or avoid them if you're not sure.

Which Plants are the "Best" Plants?

There's no magic bullet! All plants have a set of conditions they thrive in—some narrower than others— so look up the requirements of any species before planting (for example, even a native wetland plant will struggle in dry soil).

The Native Plant Trust's Plant Finder can help narrow down your search for the best native Northeast plants given your local conditions and goals. Alternatively, you can check out a list of some of the plants we recommend below.

Top Wildlife-friendly Plants for Sale (Locally & Online)

*native to Northeast but non-native to MA


Smooth beardtongue, Penstemon digitalis
Wild Columbine, Aqueligia canadensis
Coral bells, Heuchera americana*
Goat’s Beard, Aruncus dioicus
Wild Geranium, Geranium maculatum
Canada anemone, Anemone canadensis
Rue Anemone, Thalictrum thalictroides
Wild Lupine, Lupinus perennis
Bird’s Foot (and other Violets), Viola pedata, etc.
Lowbush blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium
Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
Golden groundsel, Packera aurea
Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata
Butterfly Weed, Ascelpias tuberosa
New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus
Hoary Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum incanum
Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum tenuifolium
Clustered Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum muticum
Obedient Plant, Physostegia virginiana* (can spread aggresively)
Northern Blazing Star, Liatris scariosa
Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa
Spotted Beebalm, Monarda punctata
Culver’s Root, Veronicastrum virginicum
Golden alexanders, Zizia aurea
American spikenard, Aralia racemosa
Ohio spiderwort, Tradescantia ohioensis
Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis
Trumpet honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens
Wild Indigo, Baptisia tinctoria
Virginia Rose, Rosa virginiana
New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae
Aromatic Aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolius (formerly Aster oblongifolius)
Smooth Aster, Symphyotrichum laeve (formerly Aster laevis)
Calico Aster, Symphyotrichum lateriflorum (formerly Aster lateriflorus)
White Woodland Aster, Eurybia divaricata (formerly Aster divaricatus)
Woodland Sunflower, Helianthus divaricatus
Pale-leaved Sunflower, Helianthus strumosus
Turtlehead, Chelone glabra
Great Blue Lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica
Cut-leaf Coneflower, Rudbeckia laciniata
New York Ironweed, Vernonia novebracensis
Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium maculatum
Boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum
Sneezeweed/Helen's Flower, Helenium autumnale
Dwarf honeysuckle/Bush honeysuckle, Diervilla lonicera
Foamflower, Tiarella cordifolia
Wild strawberry, Fragaria virginiana
Common Yarrow, Achillea millefolium
Barren strawberry, Geum fragarioides (formerly Waldsteinia fragarioides)
Goldenrods, various, Solidago spp.


Prairie dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepis
Little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium
Switchgrass, Panicum virgatum
Sideoats Grama, Bouteloua curtipendula
Tufted Hairgrass, Deschampsia cespitosa
Wavy Hairgrass, Deschampsia flexuosa
Pennsylvania Sedge, Carex pensylvanica


Winterberry Holly, Ilex verticillata
Sweet Pepperbush, Clethra alnifolia
Swamp Azalea, Rhododendron viscosum
Chokeberries, Aronia spp.
American Hazelnut
Viburnums – several native options
Dogwoods – Gray, Silky, Red-twig, Pagoda, Flowering
Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis


W = wild only, no cultivars

Fruit-Eating Birds

Mulberry (summer)
Black Cherry (late summer)  W
Viburnums (summer) 3-4 native species
Dogwoods 4 native species
Pokeweed (late summer/fall) W
Black Tupelo
Virginia Creeper (late summer/fall) W can mail order
American Holly (winter)
Winterberry & Inkberry hollies (winter)
Crabapples (e.g. Zumi) fruits in winter, flowers attract spring migrants

Seed-Eating Birds

Evening primrose W
Asters & Goldenrods anything in daisy family
Native grasses various
"Hard mast" producers (oak, beech, American Hazelnut)

→ Don't dead-head those last blooms of garden plants! Finches and sparrows will thank you.


Wild Columbine, Aqueligia canadensis
Trumpet honeysuckle, Lonicera sempirvirens
Beebalms, Monarda didyma (and other Monarda spp.)
Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis
Giant Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum

Important Butterfly Larval Host Plants

Oak (especially young oaks & Bear Oaks)
Milkweeds 4 species
Grasses especially Little Bluestem
Parsley family (Queen Anne's Lace, Yarrow, Dill, etc.)