There seems to be a big surge in interest for attracting dragonflies to gardens and many online sources are suggesting the best plants for the job. Titles include, 12 Best Plants to Attract Dragonflies and Best Plants to Create a Dragonfly Garden. The lists include things like rudbeckia, milkweed, yarrow and sage.
But do plants really attract dragonflies? And if they do, which plants work best?
The Life of a Dragonfly
To understand the interaction between plants and dragonflies it is important to understand the life of a dragonfly. It starts as an egg that is laid on or near water and all but one North American species breeds in fresh water.
A nymph hatches from the egg and lives in water anywhere from one month, up to eight years, depending on species.
When the time is right, the nymph crawls out of the water onto a vertical reed, or slanted rock, or it might use artificial wood structures like the footings on a bridge. The adult flying insect then hatches out, dries its wings and flies away. It is quite common to find the empty nymph skins along the waters edge.
The dragonfly is now very hungry and spends a lot of its time searching for small insects like black flies, no-see-ums and mosquitoes. A large dragonfly can eat more than 100 mosquitoes a day. Their appetite for mosquitoes and their fast-flying ambush acrobatics while on the hunt, have earned them the nickname “mosquito hawk.”
The other important activity is mating. Since the flying stage of the insect does not live very long, it’s important to find a mate and produce fertilized eggs, starting the cycle all over again. Since the eggs are laid in or near water, dragonflies spend much of their time around ponds. This is also a good place to find insects for lunch.
This whole process is much more interesting than I have described, and there are many different mating and egg laying strategies used by different species, but that is not the focus of this post.
How Do Plants Attract Dragonflies?
Adult dragonflies eat insects. They don’t eat pollen or nectar, so they have no need for plants as far as a food source goes. For this reason, plants don’t really attract dragonflies.
Dragonflies do have predators like birds, so they do look for hiding places to rest and plants play a big part here, but any plant that gives a smaller insect some protection will work. It does not have to be a special type of plant.
Unlike other insects, dragonflies do not have a normal smell center, but recently it has been found that they do have some basic smell capabilities which are most likely very primitive. They can smell a fruit fly, one of their favorite foods. Many of the dragonfly-attracting plants suggested online are fragrant but there is no evidence that fragrance attracts dragonflies.
Dragonfly nymphs also need protection in the pond, but again any plant that provides smaller crevices and hiding places will work.
Many species want to climb up a reed-type stem for emergence. Cattails are great for this. It is the shape of the stem or leaf that is important, not the actual species of plant. In fact dragonflies will also use rocks and manmade structures for emergence, so they don’t really need plants.
Plants Attract Insects
Since dragonflies eat insects like mosquitoes, any plant that attracts these insects will indirectly also attract dragonflies. Which plants attract mosquitoes?
Mosquitoes and black flies eat nectar from plants, but they seem to be generalists and use many different plants. They are active at night, and like to hide in grass and taller plants during the day. A garden with a diverse range of plants should provide a home for these insects, as many gardeners will confirm.
There is limited scientific evidence to suggest that growing one species of nectar producing plant is better for attracting mosquitoes and black flies to the garden.
The thing that attracts these insects the most, is water. Mosquitoes prefer standing water, and black flies need moving water.
Plants that produce soft fruit will attract fruit flies, but these are never mentioned on the favorite plant lists.
What About Dragonfly Attracting Plants?
It’s a myth!
Any list you see of the “Best Plants for Attracting Dragonflies” is just made up to get you to click on their advertising. Avoid such sites.
If you want to attract dragonflies to your garden, continue doing what you are doing. If they live nearby, and you have enough small insects, they will find your garden.
An even better option is to add a pond. It is the best way to attract dragonflies and you can find out more about building such a pond here: Creating a Dragonfly Pond.