Pollinating Plants You Can Eat

Bee in zucchini flower

by Mark and Ben Cullen

Pollinators are the great enablers. 

We need pollinator species to help us produce more than a third of the food we eat.  In the garden, we believe the percentage of plants that require native pollinators to produce a harvest is much higher.

Simply put, if a plant produces fruit of any kind, it requires pollination.  By “fruit” we do not mean just apples, peaches, pears, and plums: fruit as we normally define it.  We mean the fruit of a plant that first produces a flower and then a fruit that we eat.  Peppers, beans, peas, cucumbers, and all members of the squash family produce fruit for the table. Technically, they are vegetables, vs. tomatoes which are fruit.  Confusing, we know.

Fact is, if it produces a flower, it requires pollination. 

So, why not plant more plants that attract pollinators to maximize your harvest this season?   

There are many flowering plants that are excellent attractants to pollinating insects and hummingbirds that are also edible.

Here are our favourites:
1. Sunflowers.  While in bloom, you can count the bees on any given day on the happy face of the pollen rich sunflower.  A honeybee will visit a sunflower looking spotless, like their mother just gave them a scrub, and leave moments later covered in yellow dust: pollen.  While they forage, they pollinate the flower and enable it to produce a spin wheel full of sunflower seeds.  You can harvest these to roast and eat or leave them for the goldfinch and other small songbirds to feast on come late summer.

2. Borage. The nectar of this old European perennial herb produces a light and delicate honey.   It is a honeybee magnet.  Ben’s sister Heather manages seven beehives on Mark’s property, and we have been impressed by the huge number of honeybees that forage his borage (ha!).  It blooms for most of the summer and early fall so almost any fruiting food plant will benefit by the pollinating insects that it attracts to your garden.  The blue, star shaped flowers look great and make a wonderful garnish on a cucumber salad. 

4. Nasturtiums.  If you like the taste of pepper, you will love nasturtium flowers. Every part of the plant is edible, but the flowers take the cake and look good on the surface of the icing.  You might want to add some to a fish cake or a burger.  They are annual plants that grow best sown directly in the garden in May.  Buy your seed now as the demand for garden seeds during the pandemic is unprecedented.

5. Mint.  Arguably the easiest plant to grow in the universe.  A small transplant purchased this time of year will spread and grow aggressively over the summer.  Plant mint where you can hem it in, using a container or an isolated garden bed.  Tolerates some shade but loves the sun.  The purple flowers of nepeta, or cat mint, which are members of the mint family, not only look great, attract pollinators, and make most cats a little crazy, it is edible.  Make some tea with any mint.  Our favourite is spearmint. 

6. Cucumbers, squash, peas, beans, raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes, and peppers.  Notice that all of these are common garden variety vegetables and fruits.  When you plant any food plant that produces a flower, it will attract pollinating insects that will not only help to fertilize the flowers of the host plant but other plants in your garden also.  Sometimes we overlook the most obvious! 

Echinacea, Purple Cone Flower, is another edible flowering plant.  The roots are used to boost the human immune system.

Rudbeckia, Black Eyed Susan, is another edible flowering plant though it is not highly rated.  We rate it highly as a pollinating plant.  The blooms last up to 10 weeks and that is hard to beat.

The benefits of the pollinating plants in your garden are not yours exclusively. Insects, hummingbirds, and other pollinating critters do not regard fences or property lines. Every flower produced on your plants adds value to the pollinating corridor in your neighbourhood.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.