Checkers: A California wildflower for bees and butterflies

A pretty pink wildflower that adapts to various California growing conditions, checkers (Sidalcea neomexicana) attracts a variety of butterflies and native bees.

Courtesy of Genevieve Schmidt
Checkers (Sidalcea neomexicana) is an attractive, easy-to-grow California wildflower that attracts peaceful native bees to gardens to provide needed pollination.
Courtesy of Genevieve Schmidt
Sweat bees are excellent pollinators and rarely sting.

Checkers, a pink-blooming wildflower in the mallow family, is of huge benefit to any gardener wanting to attract native bees or butterflies.

Checkers (Sidalcea neomexicana) thrives with the summer water given to many flower borders and vegetable beds, and it’s an easy-to-grow plant for sun or part shade.

It will even tolerate wet soil, in stark contrast to most California natives, which prefer hot and dry summer conditions.

The blooms attract native bees

Not only does it flower like a champ all through the summer, but the blooms attract a wide variety of our peaceful native bees. Sweat bees, mason or orchard bees, and leaf cutter bees can be seen gathering pollen from the glowing blooms on sunny days.

While you may not be a fan of stinging insects, our native bees have a peaceful temperament, and most are so small that their stinger won’t penetrate our skin.

Peter Haggard, author of "Insects of the Pacific Northwest," says that while researching and photographing his book, he would often reach out and carefully grasp a native bee to properly identify it, before releasing it again. Even though he was actually picking up and holding onto a native bee, stings were rare.

If you’re a vegetable gardener, you probably already know the benefits of having lots of pollinators nearby. Tomatoes and other fruits and veggies rely on pollinators to turn flowers into fruit, so if you’ve ever had a tomato plant flower and flower with little or no fruit, you’ll benefit greatly from planting checkers or another bee attractor nearby.

A place for butterflies to lay eggs

Even better than providing food to our pollinators, checkers is a host plant to all three of our California painted lady butterflies, as well as at least one other butterfly species.

This is important because so many butterflies are host-specific, meaning they won’t just lay their eggs anywhere. If there aren’t enough plants they recognize as a place they can lay their eggs, our butterflies will die out entirely.

Planting checkers is a great way of ensuring you’ll see painted ladies and other butterflies in your garden come summer!

The wildlife benefit doesn’t stop in winter, either. When I visited Haggard’s garden recently, he showed me how he had snapped off the tips of the dead flower stalks on checkers in fall. That exposes the hollow core of the stems, which is a perfect nesting place for carpenter and mason bees.

You may have seen tutorials on how to make a nest box for native bees using a drill and a block of wood, but checkers provides a natural home for our peaceful pollinators, with little effort on your part. Just leaving the old flower stalks through the year is an easy way to provide for this part of our ecosystem.

As you can see from the photos above, many of our native bees are gorgeous to look at -- a brilliant, shiny green -- and checkers isn’t a slouch in the looks department, either. It’s a low-maintenance perennial that fits in well with most any garden design.

If you want to grow checkers, Las Pilitas Nursery is a great source for this and other California native plants.


Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and garden writer in the redwoods of northern California. She shares her professional tips for gardening in the Pacific Northwest at North Coast Gardening and on Twitter. To read more by Genevieve here at Diggin' It, click here.

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