My fascination with skimmers (a flashy family of dragonflies) began many years ago. I was picking a few sprigs of fresh rosemary from my garden when I caught a glimpse of a dragonfly out of the corner of my eye. As I carefully inched closer, I noticed its distinctive dark chocolate-and-gray boldly patterned wings and yellow dorsal stripe—a telltale sign of a female widow skimmer. A few days later, I spotted a flame skimmer poised on a metal dragonfly perch in bright sunlight, showing off its brilliant coloration of orange red, much like the hue of a flaming coastal sunset. I was captivated by these garden bugs.
Skimmers are unique among dragonflies for their diversity of colors, wing patterns and habits. They arguably are the most easily identifiable group due to their beautiful coloration and uniquely patterned wings, which can be quite showy. They’re also easy to observe because of their tendency to remain still and return to the same spot between flights. These day-flying creatures take center stage during the warm, sunny days of summer when birding activity is dwindling. But you can see skimmers on the wing anytime from spring to fall, depending on the species and region.
While common around water, they also frequent backyard gardens—even ones like mine that lack a pond. They’ll perch on garden plants to scout potential insect prey or soak up warmth from a sun-drenched stone. With bodies up to 2-1/2 inches long, these garden bugs aren’t quite as large as darners. But what they lack in size, they make up for with their colorful and assertive nature. In fact, their behavior can be as showy as their appearance. Males typically are very territorial at breeding sites, displaying aggression by chasing competing males in what can be likened to an aviation performance of vertical loops and side-by-side flight displays. And they glide with amazing speed while chasing insects like mosquitoes. (Natural pest control is another reason they’re very good bugs for your garden.)
To make your garden more attractive to skimmers, give them three things: food, water and places to perch. Keep your garden organic and grow flowers rich in nectar to help create a continual bug buffet. Even something as small as a birdbath can provide the water. Perching spots usually aren’t a problem since by its very nature, a garden already has plenty such places. And don’t forget a cozy bench or chair parked near a flower bed. After all, you’ll want a front row seat to enjoy the skimmer show!
6 Plants to Attract Skimmers
Aster (Aster spp)—Perennial with a profusion of daisylike flowers from late summer through fall. Grows in full sun from 6-inch compact mounds to spreading plants up to 6 feet in height. Zones 3 to 8.
Cleome (Cleome hasslerana)—Marginally frost-hardy annual bearing clusters of spiderlike summer flowers. Flowers may self seed and stems are often spiny. Grows from 4 to 6 feet tall in full sun.
Coneflower (Echinacea spp)—Long-blooming perennial with daisylike flowers summer through fall. A drought-tolerant and heat-resistant choice, it grows from 1 to 5 feet tall in full sun to light shade. Zones 3 to 9.
Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp)—Easy-to-grow perennials and annuals that bloom profusely from summer through fall. Compact plants with self-sowing tendencies grow from 1 to 4 feet tall in full sun. Zones 3 to 11.
Rudbeckia (Rudbeckia spp)—Also known as coneflower, gloriosa daisy or black-eyed Susan, these showy annuals and perennials produce daisylike flowers from summer to fall. The plants grow in full sun to 6 feet tall, with dwarf strains 1 to 2 feet tall. Zones 3 to 9.
Zinnia (Zinnia spp)—Hot weather annuals flower in full sun from summer until frost. Zinnias grow in a diversity of shapes, sizes and colors, from 12 inches to 4 feet tall.