Annuals for wildlife gardening

Annuals are plants that complete their life-cycle in one growing season. Many of them are exotic tender perennials that are unable to survive cold winters. There are a few reasons why one might use annuals in a garden: they give you long periods of colour; they can be used to fill in the gaps around perennials that are not yet mature; and they are used for pots and hanging baskets.

  Hanging basket  
  Hanging baskets are great for beautifying your home. They can also be very inviting to wildlife as well. This basket received numerous visits from bees and hummingbirds. It was placed right by the back door and enabled my family to see hummingbirds up close and personal.  

However, it should be noted that exotic annuals that are long blooming are often nowhere near as good as native perennial plants for attracting pollinators and they do not typically support food chains. If you only plant these annuals, then you may get some bees interested in the flowers because there is no other choice. The pollinator density is lower in annuals than in temperate perennials because these latter plants have evolved to provide a concentrated nectar source over a short period of time. Instead of planting a large number of annuals, consider long blooming perennials and perennial grasses as an alternative.

Warning: Never plant annuals that can overwinter in your garden unless they are native to your region. Many parts of the U.S. have winters that are warm enough to allow some of the annuals listed below to survive and prosper. This can lead to all sorts of ecological problems both directly as an invasive species and indirectly by hosting unwanted parasites. The worst cases occur when the mature plant does not die back during the winter; however, even overwintering seeds can be an issue.

To make the most of your exotic annuals it is best to start growing them indoors from seed (about six weeks before last frost) and then move them outside when the weather warms up. Avoid double flowered and sterile cultivars. Here is a list of annuals that have some wildlife benefit.

  Gaillardia pulchella is an annual or short-lived perennial.  
  Gaillardia pulchella is a rarely planted annual that ticks all the boxes. It adds incredible colour to the garden, it is a native plant and it supports many pollinators.  


Name Notes

Antirrhinum sp. (Snapdragons)

It attracts low numbers of bees and provides some bird seed.
Asclepias curassavica

Tropical milkweed that hosts Monarchs and supplies nectar to many other insects. It is OK to plant it in areas of North America with cold winters.

Coreopsis tinctoria native (Plains Coreopsis)

A native annual attractive to syrphid flies.
Gaillardia pulchella native A native annual that is fairly attractive to pollinators and provides bird seed. The plant is difficult to obtain. In sandy soil it is likely to be biennial.
Helianthus annuus native(Sunflower) An excellent annual for attracting bees and provides sunflower seeds that goldfinches love. Obtain plants that produce pollen.
Impatiens capensis native A true native annual that likes partly shaded moist areas. It is pollinated by hummingbirds. It is not generally planted.
  Hummingbirds are often seen feeding from these flowers.  
Lantana camara A tropical plant that attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. See the notes about its invasiveness.
Monarda citriodora It attracts some butterflies and the odd hummingbird.
Phacelia tanacetifolia An excellent plant for attracting bees
Rudbeckia hirta native This is really a biennial, but in many places, it will flower in its first year and behave like an annual plant. A great native plant to fill in while your perennials develop.
Salvia farinacea (Blue Salvia) Attracts moderate numbers of pollinators as well as hummingbirds.
  Tithonia with swallowtail  
  Tithonia is an excellent all-rounder for attracting wildlife.  
Tithonia rotundifolia (Mexican Sunflower) It attracts moderate numbers of bees, monarch butterflies and the occasional hummingbird. Goldfinches flock to the plant in the fall.
Verbena bonariensis Quite good at attracting butterflies.
Zinnia sp. (Zinnia) It attracts a moderate number of bees, syrphid flies, some butterflies and hummingbirds. It also provides bird seed. Giant Zinnias are the best choice. Those really short zinnias on sale in regular nurseries do not really seem attractive to pollinators.
  Tithonia with Zinnia  
  You can place Tithonia in the centre of a large container and surround it with Giant Zinnias to great effect. Pollinators love this combo and your human visitors will love it too.