Here in the two-acre herb garden of Avena Botanicals in West Rockport, Maine, at least three kinds of bees can be seen (and heard) collecting pollen from a huge weeping willow tree in late spring. A patch of blue lungwort beneath a flowering magnolia is a favorite stop for honeybees, while a bleeding heart growing against the house is frequented by hummingbirds.
In this beautiful landscape, more than 120 species of medicinal herbs, trees and shrubs grow lush with compost and organic preparations. But the garden does much more than supply raw ingredients for owner Deb Soule’s business, Avena Botanicals. Avena also is an outdoor classroom, a source of seeds, a quiet spot for meditation and, last but not least, a haven for pollinators.
Visitors often comment that the garden hums almost continuously with the sounds of pollinators. Everywhere, honeybees, bumblebees, hummingbirds and others are abundant and busy—at a time when conventional farmers lament a lack of pollinators in their own gardens and fields.
Bees Love Tiny Flowers
Just as bees and other pollinators find sustenance at Avena, Deb appreciates the pollinators. Her journey to discover “who pollinates what and how” began about 15 years ago, when her echinacea failed to produce viable seed. Reading The Forgotten Pollinators by Stephen L. Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan (Island Press, 1997), she learned that pollinators are integral to ecosystems, and they’re affected by the toxins prevalent in our modern world. After years of study, firsthand observation and beekeeping, Deb knows very well which medicinal herbs attract pollinators. But she has new questions: Do pollinators get more than nectar, pollen, protein and carbohydrates from her plants? Might they also benefit from the medicinal compounds in herbs, just as we do?
“Basil, lemon balm and rosemary flowers are tiny,” Deb says, “but the pollinators go for them. Why? In September, our sacred basil is literally covered with bees—their pollen sacs are a beautiful pink-orange, the color of the pollen of sacred basil.”
Ross Conrad of Dancing Bee Gardens in Middlebury, Vermont, author of Natural Beekeeping (Chealsea Green Publishing, 2007), says, “I’m not aware of any studies that have proven honeybees benefit from the compounds in herbs, but some beekeepers have reported that bees foraging on wintergreen and other mints seem better able to withstand the stress caused by tracheal and Varroa mites [suspected as a culprit in the decline of bees].” Essential oils from some of these herbs are used to combat the mites, so picking up small amounts of these oils in nectar could help bees deal with the mites, he says.
Tony Jadczak, Maine state apiarist, also does not know of any definitive research that shows bees benefit from the compounds in herbs. Jadczak notes that high concentrations of menthol and thymol are needed to effectively control mites. For example, beekeepers use a 99 percent menthol preparation in hives—far more than the small percentage of menthol bees would pick up from mint plants. He suggests that bees get some other reward from foraging on the small flowers of some herbs: maybe pollen, nectar with quality sugar, trace elements or some other substance.
Benefiting Pollinators and Gardeners
Everyone agrees that herbs do provide pollen, nectar, shelter—and perhaps more—for bees and other pollinators. To support these key links in the ecosystem over a long season, Deb suggests growing the following herbs, in particular.
(Note: Some, but not all, of these herbs can be used by home growers to make healing teas or other preparations. If a medicinal use is not suggested, look for this herb in its commercially prepared form.)
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). This perennial flowers in midsummer, attracting bees and other pollinators. Makes a good tea for the digestive system.
Bee balm (Monarda spp.). Deb grows ‘Raspberry Wine’ bee balm for pollinators in early to midsummer, and dries the species M. fistulosa and M. didyma for tummy-soothing winter teas.
Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa). The tall, beautiful plants were so covered with bumblebees one August day that Deb could hardly see the white flowers. Commercial preparations are used to treat menopausal symptoms.
Borage (Borago officinalis). Easy to grow and reseeds readily; bees love its bright blue blooms throughout summer. Commercially prepared borage seed oil is used to treat skin conditions.
Catmint (Nepeta racemosa). Spikes of tiny purple flowers are loved by hummingbirds and honeybees in late spring. Its leaves make a tea that nourishes the nervous system.
European meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). Its creamy-white flowers are “absolutely covered with a total frenzy of bees” in late July, Deb says. The leaves and flowers make a comforting tea; commercial preparations are used to treat colds, flu, and kidney and bladder problems.
Greek mullein (Verbascum olympicum). The tall flower stems attract bees, and the plant reseeds readily. Deb puts the flowers in olive oil to make earache drops. Mullein leaf tea is soothing to dry coughs and sore throats. To dry the leaves, first remove the large midrib. “Harvest and dry the younger leaves of the first-year plant, and let the second-year plant go to flower,” she says.
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). The flower provides pollen for many butterflies, honeybees and bumblebees. Commercial preparations are used to stimulate the immune system.
Other medicinal herbs that benefit honeybees include arnica, angelica, basil, calendula (especially ones with simple, bright orange blooms), catnip, dandelion, feverfew, lavender, lemon balm, marshmallow, motherwort, nasturtium, sage and Solomon’s seal.
Deb notes that pollinators seem to prefer hedges or clumps of plants—one reason for the three-dimensional, room-like design of her garden. Several varieties of creeping thyme form the “floor”—a large, central circle—with taller plants around it. Hedges, arbors, trellises and other “walls” frame the garden and protect it from wind.
“Hummingbirds, like honeybees, are very species-specific, so if your garden includes plant groupings, they won’t have to fly so far,” Deb says. (For specific plant choices, see “Hedge Your Hummingbird Bets,” opposite page.) To benefit all pollinators, plant in groups, plant a variety of species and avoid pesticides, she advises. “The more people think about planting for pollinators—whether in a large garden or simply a hanging pot of nasturtiums and fuchsia—the better. Every little bit really helps a lot.”
How the Pollinators’ Paradise Was Made
Deb Soule founded Avena Botanicals in 1985 in a small room in her West Rockport, Maine, home, where she prepared remedies from her garden herbs. In 1995, Avena moved down the street to its current 32-acre farm, where Deb designed and planted her large, organic and biodynamic herb gardens. The plants in the herb gardens supply nearly 70 percent of the herbs that Avena uses in its products, and they also support hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and other visitors—including humans. The artfully designed gardens—some in full sun, others wooded—include stone paths, meditation benches, statuary, and handcrafted arbors, bridges and gates. The gardens are open to the public year-round, free, Monday through Friday. Avena’s herbal products are sold at the apothecary adjacent to the gardens, through the Avena catalog and online. Deb will lead free Summer Herb Walks through the gardens on select Wednesdays throughout the summer. Many classes also are offered for a fee during the growing season. For more information, contact Avena Botanicals, (207) 594-0694; email@example.com;
Hedge Your Hummingbird Bets
Not all pollinators are bees. Avena Botanicals owner Deb Soule’s favorite pollinator is the ruby-throated hummingbird, and the key to attracting these beautiful migrating birds is to have a mix of their favorite plants in bloom all season, she says. (Although all of these plants are beautiful and beneficial to the hummingbirds, not all of them are used to make medicinal preparations.)
Hummingbirds usually arrive at Avena May 1 to 15, when they feed on apple blossoms and true Solomon’s seal, which grows in a bed in part shade. Another early-season hummingbird favorite is lungwort, which is “a great groundcover below shrubs or trees,” Deb says. “The hummingbirds love that little bit of shade.” Hummingbirds also frequent dandelions and coral bells in spring.
In summer, scarlet runner beans provide four to five weeks of blooms that attract hummingbirds, and a hedge of jasmine-scented nicotiana “is fragrant in the evening and morning, and they love that,” she says. Hummingbirds visit magenta liatris in August, and in mid- to late summer, bright red cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Other late-season attractions include fall phlox, asters, Mexican sunflowers and hummingbird sage (Salvia coccinea).
“For those with small decks or gardens, potted nasturtiums, hanging pots of fuchsia and vining honeysuckle are fantastic choices for hummingbirds and people,” Deb says.
Find Out More ...
Status of Pollinators in North America, Free online at http://books.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11761#toc
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, www.xerces.org
North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, www.nappc.org
Deb Soule’s Garden Notebook, http://avenabotanicals.com/garden-notebook.aspx
Horizon Herbs, www.horizonherbs.com
Johnny’s Selected Seeds, www.johnnyseeds.com
Fedco Seeds, www.fedcoseeds.com
Jean English writes and gardens on the coast of Maine.