The Revolutionary Pollinator Garden

When Europeans first sailed across the ocean they started a revolution that would change the botanical nature of North America. In their cargo holds colonists brought seeds from a pharmaceutical cornucopia of plants that would mend and heal and over time many of these plants escaped from the domestic gardens into the wild. Some of these powerful medicinals, such as dandelion and plantain, would become known as weeds, the bane of the modern day lawn. Once in America, colonists discovered new native plants that had powerful healing effects and these plants were integrated into their gardens. With the introduction of new species, the plethora of native pollinators would for the first time find new flowers on the seasonal menu.


The Van Wyck Lake Homestead was the headquarters for the Fishkill Supply Depot for General George Washington’s Northern Army and included a large and busy hospital. The kitchen garden, designed and created by Judy Wolf*, is a representation of what a garden might have looked liked during the Revolutionary War period. The plants in the garden had many uses beyond culinary purposes such as medicine, cleaning products and for dyes.  The following is sampling of some of the more than 50 plants found in this small garden and the pollinators that visit them.

Honey Bee on Lamb's Ear

The Honey Bee brought over from Europe was familiar with many of the non-native plants such as Lamb’s Ear.

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) conjures images of campfires and S’mores and not the perennial plant native to Europe and North Africa that was first used by the Egyptians as a honey sweetened confection to treat sore throats. The plant was commonly grown in the colonial garden for its medicinal properties. Like many plants in colonial gardens the flowers attract the non-native honey bee but are also appealing to native bees such as the small carpenter bee (Ceratina spp.).


Small Sweat Bee (Certina spp.) on Marshmallow flower

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) a native flower to North America commonly known for its immune boosting properties. The plant possess’ anibacterial porperties and was historically used to heal sores, wounds and burns.  It is a favorite among a variety of bees and butterflies including bumble bees (Bombus spp.), green sweat bees (agapostemon spp.) and long horned bees (Melissodes spp.)


Long Horn Bee (Melissodes spp.) on Purple Coneflower

Germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) was used for wound treatment, fever reducer, digestive aid and for gout. The purple tubular flowers are especially attractive to wool carder bees (Anthidium spp.). These bees are entertaining to watch. The males are territorial and fend off other bees, insects and humans and especially fond of chasing down the female carder bees.  This is one of the few bee species where the males are larger than the females.

Wool Carder Bee on

Wool Carder Bee (Anthidium spp.) on Germander

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is another European native that is an herbal treatment rarely used today though it was historically used internally to expel intestinal worms while used externally to kill lice, fleas and scabies. The dried leaves are known to repel ants, fleas and flies. In short this plant is poisonous and is fatal if ingested in large quantities. Despite its ability to repel and kill, its tiny flowers, up to 100 florets in a flower head, are very attractive to small bees like the tiny sweat bees (Halictus spp.) and small carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.).

Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina spp.) and sweat bee (Halitus spp.) on Tansy.

Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina spp.) and sweat bee (Halitus spp.) on Tansy.

The delicate flowers of bugbane (Actaea racemosa) a native plant to North America also known as black cohosh and black snakeroot, used by Native Americans to treat pain in women during menopause. Its odiferous properties make it a good insect repellent, hence the common name bugbane. In large doses, the plant is toxic. However, it does not repel all insects, the flowers are attractive and enjoyed by bumble bees (Bombus spp.) at the Van Wyck Lake Homestead.

Bumble Bee (Bombus spp.) on Bugbane

Bumble Bee (Bombus spp.) on Bugbane

The variety of flowering plants that bloom from early spring to late fall attract a variety of pollinators. Many of the species introduced from Europe to North America have naturalized and joined the diversity of plants that surround us, while other have become invasive, crowding out native plants and diminishing the diversity within a region. These non-native plants are able to get a foot hold when forests are fragmented due to construction and other types of disturbance. A classic example is just up the road from the Van Wyck Lake Homestead, where after a young stand of sugar maple trees was removed the area quickly was invaded by a non-native and invasive tree called tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima). The introduction of new species, new diseases, habitat fragmentation, irresponsible use of pesticides and climate change have had a lasting and negative impact on the ecosystem and many native insects and pollinators have continually adapted to survive or perished. As we take a look at the diversity of bees today, we can only wonder if there were once bees visiting this garden in the 1780’s that have long disappeared.

George Washington (R) and Continental Soldier (L) at the Van Wyck Homestead.

George Washington (R) and Continental Soldier (L) at the Van Wyck Homestead.

Fishkill Historical Society’s 1780’s Kitchen Garden, Judy Wolf, Historical Researcher and Volunteer Master Gardener. Member of the Fishkill Historical Society and Friend of the Fishkill Supply Depot.