Friday, 7 December 2012

Phacelia tanacetifolia – a great plant for bees



Phacelia makes a pretty addition to an allotment plot
If bees could make a list of their favourite plants to collect nectar and pollen from, I bet phacelia would be on it. A shame it is not very well-known and not planted more often in gardens and allotments in the UK.

Phacelia tanacetifolia is an annual plant and belongs to the borage family (Boraginaceae) together with other good pollinator plants such as borage (Borago officinalis) and viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare). It is native to California, Arizona and Mexico and colonises dry stony hillsides up to 2000 m above sea level. Phacelia is not very frost-hardy and will only survive light frosts but can overwinter in mild areas.

Phacelia as green manure (in the foreground): still looking good in December
Covering empty beds with Phacelia helps bees and your soil
Phacelia has pretty blue flowers which attract lots of bees

The plants have pretty blue flowers and ferny leaves and can be sown from late March to September in almost any garden soil. Slugs and snails tend to ignore the seedlings so if you have problems with these pests Phacelia is the right plant for you. The plant is pretty enough to grow in a flower border, together with other pollinator-friendly annual plants such as Borage (Borago officinalis), Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus and C. sulphureus), Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) and sunflowers (Helianthemum annuum). It can also be grown in small patches between vegetables on your allotment or as a green manure on empty beds which is dug into the soil after flowering. You also don`t have to incorporate it into a rotation plan as Phacelia is not related to any of the vegetables commonly grown in the UK.

 Phacelia looks good with orange Pot marigold and yellow Sunflowers

Phacelia is a prolific self-seeder but never gets invasive as the seedlings are easy to pull out or hoe off. The plant can also cope with dry soil once established so you don`t have to water in summer.

The flowers produce lots of nectar and will attract countless honeybees, bumblebees and other pollinators (the German name for this plant is Friend-of-the-bees or Bee-feast). It is amazing to see how many bees are actually visiting on a sunny day; I often counted up to 30 bees per 1m2 at a time. If sown later in summer Phacelia will flower right until the first sharp frosts and provide welcome food for young bumblebee queens.

Below you can see some pictures of pollinators enjoying the nectar and pollen feast: 

Even hoverflies are attracted to the flowers
A Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) visits the flowers
Phacelia is a great plant for bees
A Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius)
Phacelia pollen is bright blue
An Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) collecting nectar


If you have not grown this plant before, give it a try. Sown as green manure it will help increase soil fertility and you will be rewarded with pretty flowers and lots and lots of pollinators.

7 comments:

  1. Phacelia is indeed a lovely looking plant - the foliage is nicely feathery, and the flowers are prettily frothy! I've seen it grown in tiny patches on allotments, and in big swathes along field margins in Scotland, where I assumed it was part of some agri-environment scheme. Nice to see some pics, thanks!

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  2. I first saw phacelia in Germany, covering whole fields which really looks amazing. A field just full of blue flowers and alive with pollinators. I have not seen something like this here in England but as you write it seems to play a bigger role in Scotland. Hope it will be planted more widespread in the near future along with other pollinator-friendly plants.

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  3. A lovely plant. I do have borage and that's a gorgeous colour, too.

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    1. I have done borage and this year have just done phacelia. The bees are already busy in my garden and the borage will be coming off next. I'm a happy gardener this year.

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  4. I planted borage this year and became a believer, so it looks like phacelia is next years addition. You doing nice work, Thanks.

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  5. I have a tray of Phacelia coming up in my GH so looking forward to planting it out soon and watching to see how many bees arrive....

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  6. I am growing Phacelia for the first time this year in an area of garden dedicated to attracting bees, butterflies, and moths. Thankyou so much for your helpful information and great photos !

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