Monday, August 31, 2015

9 Plants That Will Add Fireworks To Your Fall Butterfly Garden

An American Lady enjoying the nectar of a Liatris flower.

Fall can sometimes be a disheartening season. The days are growing shorter, evenings darker, and the summer's bounty is drying up. But there are still a whole lot of insects busy at work out there, Monarch butterflies and honeybees being two of the most charismatic and well-known. If you're gardening specifically to support pollinators like these, you should think about adding fall-blooming plants to your garden. Here are nine of my favorite plants and plant groups for fall blooms in the butterfly garden:

1. Joe Pye Weed  (Eupatorium species). A very tall plant stretching 5 to 7 feet high, the reddish-pink fuzzy blooms are often covered with Tiger Swallowtails and other butterflies.

I also grow native Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) in my garden, but find that its white flowers are not as popular with butterflies as the pink flowers are. Many kinds of bees do love the Boneset flowers, though. Be warned, Boneset is a pretty aggressive reseeder in my experience. I pull seedlings out of the driveway, the lawn, and my vegetable garden every year. My Joe Pye Weed isn't very good at reseeding, on the other hand.

Joe Pye Weed at Brookside Gardens, with several skippers and a bumble bee

2. Ironweed  (Vernonia species). I love the vibrant purple of Ironweed flowers! Like Eupatorium, they look like fuzzy little clusters. I'd say they are less popular with my pollinators on a pure total insects basis, but probably on a ratio of pollinators per square inch they're pretty close.

To be honest, I'm not sure whether I'm growing New York Ironweed (Vernonia novaboracensis) or Tall Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea), or even another species, since I got them at a plant swap a few years ago, where they were labeled simply "Ironweed."

Vernonia, like Eupatorium, is very tall, so I grow both against a fence between my yard and my neighbor's yard. The contrast of the purple with a butter-yellow Eastern Tiger Swallowtail or orange Monarch Butterfly is really something. For that matter, they'd look pretty sharp in a bouquet with the next two flowers.

Ironweed with a Peck's Skipper, a Tawny-Edged Skipper, and a honeybee

3. Goldenrod-- Solidago genus. There are tons of different goldenrod species. Some have flat-topped clusters of flowers, while others are like wands or fans. Some grow very tall while others stay fairly short. All of course have the classic tiny yellow individual flowers that are so popular with bees and butterflies. This is another plant that has been a vigorous spreader in my garden.

Different species of goldenrod seem to have very different bloom times; some varieties I see at Brookside Gardens are already in bloom, while my plants are still budding up. So the earlier varieties could help to feed the last local generation of Monarch butterflies in my area, while the later ones can help migrators as they pass through the area in a couple weeks or so.

Bees also love goldenrod, as evidenced by the bulging pollen basket of this bumblebee!

4. The state flower of Maryland, Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), is another great flower for your late summer and early fall pollinators. There are actually several different varieties of Rudbeckia, and it seems like more are developed each year by plant breeders. I would use any one in order to add a cheerful pop of yellow to the butterfly bed, and do in fact grow at least two or three varieties.  Goldfinches love the seeds of these if you allow the flowers to ripen, so you'll also have the bright yellow flashes darting through your garden to add to the flowers' own beauty in that case.

Black-eyed Susan with a hungry Pearl Crescent

5. Several native Asters are good additions to a late-season pollinator garden. New England Asters (Aster novae-angliae) are covered with purple daisy-like flowers. New York Asters (Aster novi-belgii) has flowers that range from purple to pink to white. Both of these asters are very popular with bees and butterflies.

New England Aster with bee

6. I used to think that Liatris were native only to the Midwest, but it turns out there are several species that are native to the midAtlantic. Dense Blazingstar (Liatris spicata) and Rough Blazingstar (Liatris aspera) both bloom in late August through at least September. During my recent visit to Meadowside Nature Center in Rockville, MD, Liatris flowers were highly popular with skippers as well as bees of many types. Both species grow medium-tall stalks of pinkish to purplish flowers. They're nowhere near as tall as the Joe Pye Weed or Ironweed, though, so they might be a nice counterpoint in your pollinator garden. (I did not note the exact species of the Liatris I used for this post's lead photo, but clearly it was satisfactory to the American Lady butterfly!)

Dense Blazingstar with skipper

7. Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus strumosis) is just as popular with songbirds as it is with pollinators. It's another fairly tall plant, holding clusters of bright yellow flowers up to six feet off the ground. Sunflowers are one of my all-time favorite flower groups: the cheery yellow always puts a smile on my face. Plus it turns out they are particularly important for many of our native bee species and other pollinators, according to the Xerxes Society.

I couldn't find a Woodland Sunflower to photograph, but this Syrphid Fly sure thinks this similar looking flower is a great source of nectar anyway!

8. Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) Until now, you might have wondered at my purple and yellow color theme so far. Cardinal Flower, however, is a vivid scarlet and is beloved by hummingbirds as well as many bees and butterflies. I often see Spicebush Swallowtail nectaring on the Cardinal Flowers at Brookside Gardens, like the one below. Unfortunately, Cardinal Flower seems to be not as vigorous a plant as some of the others on my list. The Prairie Nursery seed catalog warns, "Short-lived, it may require replanting every few years, but is well worth the effort." I did indeed experience this: the Cardinal Flower I planted lasted maybe two or three years before disappearing. If you don't have any red blooms in your late-summer garden it might be worth adding this to your garden, to help support migrating hummingbirds as they pass through your yard, as well as to round out your color scheme.

Spicebush Swallowtail on Cardinal Flower

9. Asclepias or Milkweed species are nearly mandatory for any pollinator garden plant list, in my opinion. There are so many to choose from, regardless of where in the US you live. Although their flowers are probably going to wind down near the end of August, I think they still merit a mention here as they will certainly attract Monarch butterflies, a fireworks-like species if there ever was one! You may still have breeding Monarchs in your area in August and September, as I often do, so if you hope to attract them for the food you might as well get them to stay for their larval host plant. Then when their offspring are ready to migrate, or when the migrating monarchs from further north come through your area, they will certainly be glad of the late-season buffet you are providing with the above list of plants.

This Monarch caterpillar is so plump, I think it must surely be close to pupation! This late in the season, it might be destined to be a migrating butterfly and will soon be on its way to Mexico.

Did I leave out any of your favorite fall flowers? Let me know in the comments.

Catalogs I consulted for this entry:
  • Wildseed Farms Sells most if not all of the plants listed here. Their FAQ also has lots of good information about planting and maintaining wildflower gardens.
  • Prairie Nursery's American Natives This is a wholesale site, but it does have a lot of good plants and information. You could probably use this as a reference and then look for individual or local retailers who carry their plants and seeds. 
Locations I visited for this entry's photographs:


  1. Excellent post. I am a big fan of rudbeckia.

  2. Thanks, Linda! I love rudbeckia too. Big swaths of it just look so cheerful and bright. I really should add more to my pollinator garden soon.


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