Supporting Pollinators from the Ground Up - Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Plants & Gardens Blog
Urban Gardening | Birds, Pollinators & Other Wildlife

Supporting Pollinators from the Ground Up

Groundcovers—plants that spread vigorously enough to cover territory, keeping weeds at bay year-round—are an important piece of any gardening puzzle.

Groundcovers offer an alternative to big swaths of lawn, and can be also used to suppress weeds as “living mulch” under taller plants, or to tuck into any cranny you’ve got—like a tree pit or around the edges of a community garden bed. And the ideal groundcover plants can create important habitat for wildlife.

A green metallic bee drinks from a small white flower surrounded by other small white flowers with pink centers.
A pollinator visiting an aster flower. Photo by Ashley Gamell.

Clovers and thymes are often recommended as pollinator-friendly groundcovers and lawn replacements. But if you’re hoping to support pollinators, make sure you’re also considering the native plants that evolved alongside them. Native plants can provide critical support for the most vulnerable pollinators: specialists that rely on specific plants to complete their life cycles.

Recent research reveals that cities are not, in fact, ecological deserts, but hubs of biodiversity. New York City gardeners, working in all kinds of spaces, can offer a lifeline to imperiled species.

Below are several tough groundcovers native to eastern North America, listed here in size order from short to tall. Most can tolerate a range of conditions, making them easy to try in most settings.


These low-growing plants can be placed underneath taller perennials, trees, and shrubs, or out on their own. While none is suitable for a heavily trafficked play lawn, they can take light-to-moderate foot traffic.

Heath Aster ‘Snow Flurry’ (Symphyotrichum ericoides ‘Snow Flurry’)

A low-growing mat of green plants with white flowers covers an area surrounded by small rocks.
Heath Aster ‘Snow Flurry’ can handle light foot traffic. Photo by Ashley Gamell.

Though cultivars are not usually recommended for conservation planting, this one has its place. If you’re having trouble finding room for fall-blooming asters, this ground-hugging cultivar could be the way to shoehorn some in. ‘Snow Flurry’ can be planted right under other plants or along paths, where it knits a wide, flat carpet of silvery, lavender-like leaves that can handle light foot traffic.

Come early fall, it will be cloaked in white flowers, long- and short-tongued bees, and other insect visitors. The flowers’ centers are yellow when newly opened, then change to rose-colored once depleted, helping to direct eager pollinators toward those with the most pollen.

Sedges (Carex species)

Sedges feature prominently as matrix plants on the Overlook at BBG. Photo by Michael Stewart.

Their names may be unfamiliar, but sedges are quite common in our wild places, and should be in our gardens! While their small, tufted flowers are primarily wind-pollinated, strappy sedge leaves can sustain more than 36 species of butterfly, moth, and skipper larvae. Many are evergreen, too, offering up cheery green foliage all through winter. Refer to Mt. Cuba Center’s sedge trials, released in 2023, to find the best species for your conditions.

Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) rapidly covers territory and creates the perfect fine-textured backdrop for other interplanted natives. Photo by Alvina Lai.

Violets (Viola species)

The lovely bird’s-foot violet (Viola pedata) does best in dry-to-medium soil and full sun. Photo by Blanca Begert.

Violets are tiny but mighty—quick spreaders that colonize even the most inhospitable spots. A century ago, New York was the capital of America’s “violet belt,” but violets have since been dismissed too often as weeds. They provide sustenance to a number of violet-only specialists—the caterpillars of 30 native species of fritillary and lesser fritillary butterflies need violets to survive, as do pollen specialists such as the violet mining bee (Andrena violae).

Three green seed capsules open to reveal numerous glossy pearl-like whitish seeds.
A violet seed pod preparing for launch. As the seed capsule dries, it can catapult its seeds several feet away. Photo by Ashley Gamell.

Violets can be planted from seed, and once you have a few, most proliferate quickly. Ants aid in their spread—the seeds have a tiny package of fat called an elaiosome, which ants collect in their burrows, sowing seeds in the process.

Options abound, from sun-loving bird’s-foot violet, Viola pedata, with its gentler spread and unusual, frilly leaves, to the adaptable cream violet, Viola striata, which leafs out so early in spring that it’s green nearly year-round.

Plantain-Leaf Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia)

A flower resembling a cat's paw, with five toe-like white fuzzy blooms, against a black background.
The fuzzy flowers of Antennaria plantaginifolia can get about a foot high, but their leaves spread at ground level, offering an effective groundcover. Photo by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.

This little native, delightful in both name and appearance, makes a good lawn substitute in drier soils. Its velvety silver leaves create a tight-knit mat that can handle foot traffic or serve as a sensory texture plant in containers and border edges, while nourishing the caterpillars of American lady butterflies (Vanessa virginiensis) and other lepidoptera.

Hold off on mowing in early spring, and you can marvel at its flower heads, which look like kitten paws and are just as soft to touch. These are followed by wind-dispersed seeds that take off on fluffy silk parachutes.

Medium to Tall Groundcovers

These selections send up flowering stems that bring them to 1–2 feet in height.

Groundsels (Packera aurea and Packera obovata

A bee drinks from a yellow flower with a yellow center.
Small pollinators visit round-leaved ragwort (Packera obovata). Photo by Ashley Gamell.

Our native groundsels, regrettably also called ragworts, quickly fill in to create a mat of glossy evergreen leaves, providing food for caterpillars of critically imperiled northern metalmark butterflies (Calephelis borealis).

Heart-leaved groundsel (Packera aurea) in BBG’s Native Flora Garden. Photo by Elizabeth Peters.

In spring, they send up a flotilla of golden flowers that nod in the breeze, provisioning a variety of small bees, flies, and other pollinators early in the season. Adaptable to shade or sun, these rugged plants spread by runner and will seed around the garden—shear off the seedheads after flowering if you want to keep them to one area.

Robin’s Plantain (Erigeron pulchellus

A group of flowers with white petals and yellow centers standing upright in a green landscape.
Erigeron pulchellus var. pulchellus ‘Lynnhaven Carpet’ is a popular form that blankets the ground with large and fuzzy evergreen leaves. Photo by Ashley Gamell.

Aptly named pulchellus, meaning “pretty,” this sturdy little member of the fleabane family sends up a mass of long-blooming, daisy-like white flowers in spring, attracting an abundance of tiny bees early in the season.

Tough and tolerant of sun or shade, robin’s plantain offers an impressive rug of silvery evergreen foliage that expands year to year, hosting caterpillars of several moths including the lynx flower moth (Schinia lynx) and providing ample offshoots to share with friends or relocate on border edges or under trees.

Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris ssp. lanceolata)

A flower spike with several purple and white flowers and green leaves.
This low-growing perennial herb is loved by bumble bees and is a host plant for the clouded sulfur butterfly. Image by Frank Mayfield / Flickr.

Selfheal, named for its rich medicinal history, can be easily seeded and even interplanted in a lawn and mown. Its sage-like purple flowers provide nectar to several species of vulnerable bumble bees, and it is the host plant for the clouded sulfur butterfly (Colias philodice).

The subspecies lanceolata is native to much of the United States, while its counterpart, ssp. vulgaris, is native to Europe and elsewhere.

Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum

Nectar guides on wild geranium. Photo by Michael Stewart.

Wild geranium brightens up any corner with large pink-lavender blooms in spring and palm-shaped, chartreuse leaves. Drought-tolerant once established, it is a vigorous spreader for sun or shade. The petals have fine, dark lines—nectar guides that bring in beetles, skippers, flies, and bees to fill up on pollen and nectar.

Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata)

Fringed loosestrife growing in the Native Flora Garden. Photo by Morrigan McCarthy.

Fringed loosestrife isn’t just a pollen plant—its flowers produce a special oil, essential to the survival of several species of critically imperiled bees. Rare oil-collecting bees (Macropis species) use loosestrife oils to construct their brood cells and provide food for the young safely sealed within.

Just don’t plant this one in dry soils. Lysimachia ciliata thrives in damp soil, with sun or shade. Its flower stalks are studded with yellow flowers in spring through fall.

Mountain Mints (Pycnanthemum species)

Narrowleaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum teniufolium), as the name suggests, has a grassy texture. Photo by Alvina Lai.

If you are looking to rapidly cover territory and don’t mind some height, mountain mints create a vigorous patch of fragrant stalks 2–3 feet tall, topped with silver flowers that attract summer pollinators.

Four of New York’s native mountain mints are listed as threatened or endangered on the state level, making them a good choice for conservation-minded gardeners. (And yes, the leaves make wonderful tea.) Pycanthemum muticum and P. virginianum are the best spreaders of the bunch.

Sourcing Plants

Using “plugs”—trays of small, young plants—is a great way to plant the large groups preferred by pollinators without breaking the bank. Your local nursery may custom-grow plugs or order them for you. Many of these plants can also be grown from seed. Whether plants or seeds, make sure they weren’t produced using pesticides.

For more ideas, a New York organization that I work with, Partners for Climate Action Hudson Valley, recently released a plant list tailored to support pollinators identified as most at-risk by the Empire State Native Pollinator Survey and other local research. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation also offers regional guides to help you find the species best suited to your ecoregion.

Ashley Gamell is a freelance writer and consultant. After a decade on staff at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, she now pens her posts from the Hudson Valley.

Comments will be posted after review; your email address will not be displayed. Have a gardening question for BBG staff? Reach out to our Gardener's Help Line.

Image, top of page: Ashley Gamell