Skip to main content
College of Environment and Design

Georgia Pollinator Plan

A Stride Towards Informed and Accessible Plant Selection

Illustrations by Paige Garvin

The fields of landscape architecture and horticulture are often riddled with prevailing ideas and norms that propagate a garden design ideal that features beautiful and ecologically beneficial specimens. Customarily, this function of a landscape is attached with its responsibility to foster an ecosystem of mutual harmony among the various members, be it insects, humans, or the climate. This ideal entails the creation of a landscape that is ecologically reminiscent of the past and aesthetically recognizable. Perhaps the most celebrated way of attaining this ideal is through the use of a pollinator garden; an idea that has gained momentum with private gardeners over the past couple of decades.

This communal effort to protect our pollinators is not lost to those who are fierce advocates of healing the fractured ecosystem. One such organization is the State Botanical Garden of Georgia (SBG). The State Botanical Garden has played a major role in increasing curiosity and knowledge on the subject, and their Georgia Pollinator Plants of the Year Program particularly stands out in purpose and impact.

“This program started in 2021,” said Heather Alley, the conservation horticulturist at the SBG working to conserve endangered and rare native plants. “It is to help people choose high-performing plants that are great for pollinators.”

Every year, four plants are selected, and each of these fit into either the spring bloomer, summer bloomer, fall bloomer, or Georgia native categories. The plants selected for the spring, summer, and fall categories can be natives or non-natives. But just what is a high-performing plant, and who selects it? Naturally, a committee that is composed of a diverse group of opinions and backgrounds, including plant nursery owners, professors from the department of entomology at UGA, a representative from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a representative from Georgia Power, representatives from the SBG, and representatives from the UGA Extension that specialize in plants and insects make these selections.

“They’re selected based on the committees’ observations of pollinators utilizing the plants when they’re in flower; it’s also expected that they do not become invasive,” Alley said. Interestingly, an added challenge to the selection process comes from how difficult it is to find them. Understandably, for plants that are difficult to find in the trade, and plants that have less than a handful of nurseries growing them, demand often outpaces the supply. This is a valuable lesson that was learned after the selection of the 2021 bloomers. Unfortunately, in Georgia it is hard to find many nurseries that grow both native and non-native plants.

“There’s a significant shortage of a lot of landscape plant material, native and non-native, but there’s a very noticable shortage of natives,” Alley said.

To remedy this, the Mimsie Center conducts a native plant sale every fall and prepares a list of retailers that have plants of the year in stock. Even so, a shortage in nurseries that grow these plants in Georgia leads to outsourcing to other states, such as South Carolina. The selection of bloomers for any given year occurs two years prior. For instance, the 2024 plants were selected in December 2022 and announced in January 2024. This allows growers a year to stock up and prepare for the energized and galvanized crowd of gardeners who are prepared to expand their pollinator gardens—or are ready to try something new.

The annual rotation of selected pollinators is particularly attractive because it gives gardeners an opportunity to add to their collection in a relatively short amount of time and, if they are new to the practice, time to experiment growing bloomers and elaborate upon their understanding of dealing with diverse types of pollinator plants. This is the impact the program has had on the community. It has provided, for sake of analogy, a bingo card that gardeners want to fill out with the four new plants each year and, as Alley said, “people really gravitate towards those choices.”

There is also room for expansion; after about two years, this program is looking to have a wider impact throughout Georgia so that gardeners throughout the state can include these plants in their gardens.

“Next year, we’re going to try partnering with other botanical gardens around the state in hopes that they will put these plants on display so it can have more of a statewide impact,” Alley said.

Though still within the confines of Athens, one of the planting beds to the west edifice of the UGA Center for Continuing Education & Hotel is far enough to deserve a mention. It boasts a showing of the 2023 plants complete with cards showcasing their information and properties. Readers are advised to catch a glimpse of the planting come Spring.

The humanistic aspect of the impact that this program has had has been tremendous, but the impact on pollinators, arguably, is of even greater importance. The goal of returning pollinators to their glory days has been arduous, but even so, efforts have been extensive and results realistic. What this program does is offer up this goal to the wider public.

Unwittingly or not, the public has helped in reestablishing these ecosystems in their backyards. The biggest challenge of this effort is to cater gardens and plantings towards those pollinators that are specialists. These pollinators search for pollen that can only be found in a particular species. The antithesis of the specialists are the generalists. As the name suggests, these pollinators are able to collect pollen and nectar from a wide variety of bloomers. Therefore, it is wise to cater to the specialists because, more likely than not, the generalists can collect pollen and nectar from that species as well. Though the Pollinator Plants of the Year Program does not specifically select bloomers that cater towards the specialist bees, the plants selected do tend to native bees, hummingbirds, moths, and butterflies.

Some species that are selected belong to a genus that supports many of the specialist bees. One such example is found in the plants selected for 2024: Erigeron pulchellus ‘Lynnhaven Carpet’ (Robin’s Fleabane). The genus Erigeron supports 9 species of specialist bees in the Eastern U.S. The other winners include Monarda punctata (Spotted Horsemint) in the summer category, Eurybia divaricata (White Wood Aster) in the fall category, and Hamamelis virginiana (American Witchhazel) in the Georgia native category. This time around all four plants are native to eastern U.S. and, as has been the case in the past, they also support various moth and butterfly species, such as the Pearl Crescent butterfly. These bloomers have inflorescences ranging from white to pink to yellow. However, these are not luminous colors, but are more so gray tints of their respective colors which ensures a harmonious transition through the year while also maintaining a complementary relationship with the surrounding landscape. They vary in their inflorescence types and forms which provides excellent contrast and a necessary antagonist to their complementary aspects.

The 2024 plants of the year were announced in late January and the program now boasts an adequate selection to observe and witness the change over the years. The Georgia Pollinator Plants of the Year is a successful program, aimed at increasing knowledge and availability of pollinator plants that, in turn, increase the populations of pollinators found in Georgia. Analysis of the use of the natural landscape and resources found within has revealed the grim future that we are bound to approach and encounter; though anthropogenic extinction– extinction caused by human activities–has been carried out thousands of years, its recent acceleration is alarming. Amidst these woes, faith in community and an understanding of the world and its functions is necessary to maximize conservation efforts and this program is one of these local efforts that provides us with comfort and confidence to face the consequences of our actions and avert their realization.

© University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602