October 2019

by Tony Gurnoe, Director of Horticulture

Gardens grow out of motives as diverse as the plants contained within. Some are created to attract wildlife, while others are meant to teach and entertain, or even just to be beautiful. The intersection between so many far-reaching garden intentions resides in flowers. Flowers embody bounty and beauty in most gardens, but they also signify sustenance. Pollinators could not get by without the same flowers that we hold dear, so we created a garden space dedicated to this shared love of blossoms.

All pollinators rely on plants for their food, just like us humans. Sometimes it’s nectar exuded deep in the throat of a flower only reachable by the proboscis of a moth. Other times it’s protein-rich pollen offered on an extended golden platter, known as a stamen. This food may even come in the form of fruit, which we can more closely relate to. Through our Birds & Butterflies Garden we aim to provide for all flying creatures, utilizing flower diversity to do so.

A garden designed to provide for birds, butterflies, bees and even bats needs to offer a rich array of flowers in terms of color, size, shape and season. In our Garden you’ll find red tubular flowers on Lobelia laxiflora and Russelia equisetiformis, which act as hummingbird magnets. You’ll also encounter many daisy-like flowers from the Asteraceae family. What looks like one flower on an Echinacea purpurea really consists of dozens of small flowers growing together as a natural bouquet. These flat-headed compound flowers provide a perfect perch and a substantial nectar buffet for our butterfly visitors. Any garden designed to sustain pollinators is intrinsically a very diverse, and therefore a very rich, landscape.

The opportunity to glean ideas from this small space adjoining the Hamilton Children’s Garden, and our new Dickinson Family Education Conservatory, extends far beyond birds and bugs. Butterflies, bumblebees, songbirds, raptors and so on are horticulturally the by-product rather than the principle. Underlying all those colorful wings and blossoms are certain fundamental principles to good garden design.

A beautiful garden takes care of itself to some degree, as is exemplified by the Asclepias curassavica and Verbena bonariensis that volunteer themselves in this garden each year. They also bring monarch and swallowtail butterflies. The most enjoyable or informative outdoor spaces express themselves throughout the year, as do the various Salvia and Buddleja varieties in our garden that bumblebees adore. Bumblebees are not only important pollinators for our food, but they are also increasingly becoming endangered species in need of a good home.

By understanding what influence the design of a landscape has on the local fauna, it becomes possible to make subtle changes that significantly benefit struggling species while actually enhancing the experience we aim to create for ourselves. When you visit the Birds & Butterflies Garden at San Diego Botanic Garden, notice all the life attracted to this small garden, and take a moment to consider how you might be able to work habitat and sustenance into your own landscape.