Monday, April 25, 2022

Not so dandy – diverse plantings improve pollinator forage

Karla Salp

Dandelions with Mt. Adams in the background
Love them or hate them, this time of year dandelions are starting to bloom, leading to the oft-repeated claim that dandelions are a great source (sometimes also claimed the only source) of early spring blooms for honey bees and other pollinators. While dandelions can be an important source of pollen for bees if there is nothing else blooming, in reality, the plants lack some essential amino acids necessary for the proper development of the hive. Dandelions can indeed help bees survive when necessary, but alone honey bees cannot thrive on them.

If you want to help pollinators, it is best to have diverse flower sources that bloom throughout the year. Here are some ideas of things to plant that make a difference for bees all year long:

Trees for Bees

Honey bee on tree blossoms
Believe it or not, trees can be one of the best sources of forage for pollinators and can provide some of the greatest density of forage/acre for bees. Most people think of fruit trees – such as cherries, apples, and pears – as being good forage sources and indeed they are. But many other trees – such as maple, linden, and willow – are also a-buzz with bees when they are in bloom. The flowers may be tiny but trees produce thousands of them, providing a glut of forage for pollinators when in bloom. Tip: If you have space, plant a variety of trees that combined bloom over a long period of time.


Honey bee on lavender
In addition to trees, there are numerous native and cultivated shrubs that provide copious flowers for pollinators. In Western Washington, there are several plants that will bloom even in the winter months – well before the dandelions show their sunny petals. Native plants like the red flowering currant and serviceberry are pollinator favorites. But cultivated shrubs like lilac, blueberries, and lavender also provide excellent sources. Shrubs are great for any yard and because they are generally much smaller than trees, most people have room for at least one shrub in their garden.

Flowers (of course)

While they don’t provide the quantity of forage found with trees and shrubs, flowers remain an important source of food for pollinators. The best part is that virtually everyone can plant flowers for pollinators, even if you only have a small pot on a balcony. Honey bees tend to prefer daisy-like flowers with flat, open surfaces, but plant a variety of flowers with different shapes to attract and support a wider range of pollinators. Clover is one type of flower that honey bees particularly like. Allowing clover to remain in your lawn provides not only forage for pollinators but it does double-duty and fixes nitrogen for your lawn as well!

Variety is the spice of pollinators’ lives

Bumblebee on berry flower

Like humans, some pollinators like honey bees need a varied diet for optimum nutrition and health. Some pollinators are specialists and rely on one type of plant as their sole food source. If you want to support a wide variety of different pollinators, including honey bees, aim to grow a variety of different plants that bloom at all different times of the year. Dandelions may bring a bee to your yard, but year-round blooms will keep them there.

For more information on helping pollinators in Washington State, visit to learn more about WSDA’s Pollinator Health Task Force. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Risky business: New WSDA program protects gardens, farms, and environment from prohibited plant sales

Karla Salp

Illegal plant sales can introduce or spread new pests, 
such as this lily leaf beetle which was found
in gardens near Bellevue. 
Skyrocketing online sales since the start of the pandemic put further pressure on a known potential pathway for invasive plants and plant diseases to enter our state: illegal plant sales.

The problematic issue came into the public eye in July of 2020 when reports of seed packets from China and other countries – some solicited and some not – became widespread both in the U.S. and abroad.

The WSDA Plant Services Program had long been grappling with this challenge – occasionally receiving reports from Washington consumers about illegal plant sales on social media and through online retailers but not having a clear path forward on how to effectively respond to complaints. 

Fast forward to October 2021 when WSDA started a first-of-its-kind program to directly address the issue of illegal online sales of prohibited plants: the Online Enforcement Program. With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Plant Services Program was able to dedicate the majority of one inspector’s time – Tristan Carette-Meyers – to work with vendors to stop these illegal sales. 

The problem – illegal plants threaten gardens, farms, and the environment

Blueberry scorch virus is one of the diseases
WSDA is trying to prevent in Washington
Photo credit: WSU Whatcom County Extension
While it may seem that selling plants should be helping, rather than harming, the environment, that is not always the case.

The sale of certain plants has been prohibited in Washington because their invasive nature can overwhelm and out-compete native plants. This has a downstream effect that impacts not only local plants but animals, food sources, habitat, and more.

Secondly, the movement of some uncertified plants into Washington has been prohibited because they pose a risk to the existing plants and the agriculture industry. For example, blueberry plants cannot be shipped into Washington unless certified disease-free. Washington is currently the top producer of blueberries in the country. If diseased or infested plants were to enter the state through unauthorized sales, it could decimate an entire industry to the tune of millions of dollars annually.

But it is not only farmers who would suffer. Gardeners and others who try to eat locally sourced food would soon be forced to look elsewhere for blueberries that would otherwise grow quite readily throughout the state.

The consumer-awareness solution

Protecting the state from the threat that illegal plant sales pose requires both the public and the state to take action.

Whether the plant itself may be invasive or might introduce a plant pest, consumers would be wise to protect their own gardens as well farms and the environment by educating themselves about the state’s plant quarantines.

Also, be discerning about where you purchase plants. Sales through social media or online are the riskiest – there are just too many for WSDA to monitor and many are not official businesses, making them difficult to track or contact. The few dollars you may save will rapidly evaporate should the plant you buy take over your garden or introduce a new pest or disease.

Buying from reputable, licensed, local nurseries familiar with the state plant and pest quarantines dramatically reduces the risk that the plant you buy will turn out to be Pandora’s box of problems.

While buying local does decrease your risk, you don’t have to stop shopping online altogether. Just be sure to ask the online vendor questions about the plant and their knowledge of Washington plant quarantines. A reputable vendor will be familiar with them; you may want to shop elsewhere if they can't answer your questions satisfactorily.

The vendor-awareness solution

Amazon is one vendor that has taken steps to prevent
the shipment of quarantined plants into Washington.
While consumers can take steps to protect themselves by ensuring they purchase from reputable distributors, WSDA’s new program has already been hard at work. Since it started last October, the Online Enforcement Program has contacted over 1,200 vendors about over 1,600 potential plant sale violations.

The program has focused its efforts on both big and small businesses – everything from eBay to Etsy. For example, due to the program’s efforts, Amazon and eBay have now established filters to prevent the sale of prohibited plants and other products from being available for shipment to Washington. WSDA has also provided materials to these companies to provide to their vendors to prevent future violations.

Because of their size, these platforms not only have the potential to sell the most plants illegally, but correcting those problems also has the potential to have the greatest benefit in protecting our state’s nursery and agriculture industry.

On Etsy, the program reaches out to individual sellers about potential violations. Etsy vendors have been particularly responsive.

When buying plants, safety first

Buying plants is one of the simple pleasures in life that can help people create their dream gardens. By working together, WSDA and consumers can prevent those dreams from turning into the nightmare of unexpected invasive plants, pests, and diseases. If you notice illegal plant sales – whether in-person or online – email to provide details (including links if it is online) about the incident.