The votes are in for 2020’s Unofficial Pollinator Plant of the Year, and the winner is…Gregg’s mistflower, Conoclinium greggii.
The Texas native perennial with fluffy lavender blooms carried our informal poll when pitted against Frostweed, Verbesina virginica, its lesser known pollinator plant colleague. The final tally as of 10 PM Feb. 1? Gregg’s mistflower 127, Frostweed 105.
“Many people still don’t know about Gregg’s mistflower,” said Lee Marlowe, sustainable landscape ecologist at the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) and 2020 president of San Antonio’s Native Plant Society chapter. Marlowe nominated Gregg’s mistflower.
“It’s such an easy plant to grow if you have some sun, it comes alive with butterflies in the fall year after year, and is easy to care for,” she said.
The Unofficial Pollinator Plant of the Year initiative, started in 2019 by the Texas Butterfly Ranch, came about to raise awareness of the unsung plant heroes of the pollinator garden. Many worthy, native plants are commercially unavailable, often only accessible during seasonal pop-up plant sales. Commercial and retail nurseries cite “lack of demand” as the reason for these plants’ absence in their stores. Our Unofficial Pollinator Plant of the Year citizen gardener effort aims to create demand that will result in more native plants at gardening centers, local nurseries and big box stores.
Among its attributes, Gregg’s mist flower’s light purple blossoms work as a butterfly magnet. Some have called it “butterfly crack” because the plant produces natural compounds that are poisonous to livestock and human beings–but irresistible and necessary to the reproduction of Queen butterflies, a close relative of monarchs.
As Ray Conroe explained in a post on the Native Plant Society webpage,
“Gregg’s mistflower produces a natural compound called intermedine, which is a pyrrolizidine alkaloid (PA for short). PA’s occur in many plants and are well known to ranchers, being very poisonous to livestock (and humans) as they serve to protect the plants from grazing. However, it turns out that intermedine isn’t poisonous to queen butterflies, but is essential to their reproduction. When you see queens nectaring on Gregg’s mistflower, over 90% of them are males happily imbibing intermedine with the nectar. Then they convert part of the intermedine to a smaller molecule named danaidone which is a sex attractant pheromone that draws in the females. During mating, the male queen passes the remaining unchanged intermedine to the female as a “nuptial gift” that once again manifests itself as a toxin, this time rendering her eggs unpalatable to predators! Thus as the butterfly pollinates the flower, the flower provides a molecule that in two ways enables the butterfly to reproduce!”
When shopping for plants for your spring garden, choose Gregg’s mistflower. If you don’t find it, help raise awareness by asking local plant suppliers to stock Conoclinium greggii. Every time you visit your favorite local nursery, big box store, or gardening center, ask the sales clerk or plant buyer: “Do you have Gregg’s mistflower? I’ve been hearing so much about it.”
Seeds are available online, but not as common as we’d like. That said, the plant is easy to propagate from seed, cuttings or by division.
“It’s just knowing the right time to do it,” said Drake White, owner of the Nectar Bar, a landscaping and native plant supplier in San Antonio. “Now is a perfect time to separate clumps and take cuttings to root.”
Depending on growing conditions, Gregg’s mistflower can be quite gregarious. If it gets out of control, just dig up a few plugs and move elsewhere. Or pot it up and give to friends. Gregg’s mistflower dies back in winter, but will spring back to life as soon as the soil warms up. It blooms March – November, requires little water and thrives in a variety of soils. Great as an alternative groundcover.
Because it grows in any soil, has a long blooming period, tolerates shade but also likes full sun, longtime San Antonio landscaper Charles Bartlett of Green Haven Industries ranks Gregg’s mistflower “a carefree pollinator favorite.”
Our successful 300for300 initiative demonstrated that when gardeners take action, we can make a difference. In 2018, we set out to create 300 pollinator gardens for San Antonio’s 300th birthday. By December 31, we had pledges for 325 gardens, exceeding our goal by almost 10 percent.
Then we pushed for 500 gardens by 2020. We surpassed that goal on January 1 and today have 528 pollinator habitats pledged. Check out the map of our pollinator habitats pledged here. Want to join our initiative? Pledge to plant a pollinator garden by registering.
TOP PHOTO: Queen on Gregg’s mistflower. By Lee Marlowe
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