Birds, bugs, and wildflowers (connecting the dots)

coreopsis lanceolata - lance-leaved coreopsis (2)

Insects are attracted to native wildflowers, like this lance-leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) which in turn attracts the songbirds we so love to see.


I’ve found a reason to become enthused about wildflowers (again). I’ve always enjoyed them and I even have a couple of areas on my property where I planted wildflowers. Heck, I even wrote a book about them. It didn’t exactly hit the bestsellers list. Actually, it left me scratching my head wondering why people just didn’t seemed to be that interested.

monarda fistulosa - wild bergamot (1)

Wildflowers, like this wild bergamot (monarda fistulosa), attract pollinators needed to pollinate the crops.

For several years I was involved in a native plant and seed cooperative. In all those years we never seemed to garner a lot of enthusiasm for wildflowers in the area where I live (Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan). Sure, we sold a few plants at annual plant sales and got some requests for them from public agencies and so forth; however, native plants never seemed to be top mind for most people in this area. Our little group finally dissolved as a couple of the members moved away and interest in the group fizzled.

monarda bradburiana - bradburys monarda (4)

Everyone loves seeing the butterflies, especially children. Bradburys monarda (monarda bradburiana) really attracts butterflies and other beneficial insects.

So for the past few years I’ve pushed wildflowers to the back of my mind. Then, just last week, I had the opportunity to interview Bill Carter, President of Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona, Minnesota.  The last I knew  about Prairie Moon they were kind of a niche business selling wildflower plants and seed to a pretty specialized group, such as the forest service, utility companies, and a few back to nature types.

That’s all changed. Carter says wildflowers are in demand, but not only because they attract bees and butterflies and grow well in their natural environments.

It’s because they attract insects.

Now, Carter says not too many folks get excited about bugs.  But everyone loves birds and birds love insects. Get the connection? Different plants, native to a region, are attractive to different insects. And you thought birds just like bird seed! Sure, they do, but they need insects to be part of their diet, and different birds need specific insects to sustain themselves and their brood.

People are getting the connection, at least in Minnesota, and are flooding Carter and his staff with business. They’re selling seed, plugs, and potted plants via mail order. They sell lots of live plants but the demand for seed is exploding.

“The demand for seed has gone through the roof,” says Carter. “It actually caught the industry off guard.”

He says the largest demand used to be for grasses first, and then wildflowers. Organizations wanted grasses to stabilize banks and restore wild areas. Now, it’s the other way around. He says people are going wild for wildflowers because they get the connection between the birds and the bugs.

A few days after I interviewed Carter I got a call to set up a wildflower display at an event on July 9 in Cedarville, Michigan that celebrates the natural world. It’s called Frogfest. The backdrop for this event is the beautiful Les Cheneaux Islands, a haven for diverse waterfowl and songbirds.  I’m looking forward to getting back into wildflowers and meeting people at Frogfest. If you’re out that way, stop by and chat and perhaps I can talk you into incorporating wildflowers into your landscape.

I’ll be giving away seeds and information on growing wildflowers so you too can attract a greater variety of birds (and bugs!).

Neil Moran is the author of North Country Gardening with Wildflowers, a guidebook on growing wildflowers in the Upper Midwest region.

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