I do not believe I have ever met a gardener that isn’t always looking for something new to plant in the garden. I am certainly no exception. Each year is like a ‘hunt’ to search and find new plants for my garden. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve had some record low temperatures in December, with some areas dipping down to single digits. Needless to say, many plants have suffered and those that are marginally winter hardy may not have survived. On the optimistic side, it creates an opportunity to plant something new!
Late summer and fall are when pollinators prepare to migrate or overwinter, so it’s an essential time to ensure the garden is filled to the brim with good plants for pollinators to eat. And usually the best plants on the pollinator menu are native wildflowers. So, it helps to be privy to the prettiest and best behaved fall wildflowers for pollinators fit for the garden
Composites, or plants in the daisy family, offer the most late-season bloom options on the menu. And their variety does not disappoint. Aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), bright Fireworks goldenrods (Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks‘), dwarf Low Down sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius ‘Low Down‘) and reddish-purple meadow blazingstar (Liatris ligulistylis) are all top-notch garden plants enjoyed by butterflies, bees and even hummingbirds. Classic annual sunflowers are also easy, much-favored blooms. Then later in the season, when all these composites have gone to seed, they produce food for hungry seed-eating birds, like gold and purple finches.
Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) of all kinds will continue to bloom into fall. And even when not in flower, their foliage provides essential forage for Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) caterpillars. Those that are showiest in fall include the tangerine-orange flowered butterflyweed (A. tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), both of which can offer flowers and showy seedpods in fall. (The non-native, semi-tropical Mexican bloodflower (A. curassavica) also provides good butterfly food, but be sure not to let it set seed as it can be weedy.) Gardeners are always surprised to see how quickly fluttering groups of butterflies (called ‘kaleidoscopes’) visit their gardens after planting Asclepias. Some may also be dismayed by all the monarch caterpillars eating their milkweed leaves, but let them eat! Beautiful, essential butterflies are a small price to pay for a few chomped plants.
Salvias and Beebalms
Late-season salvia, hyssop (Agastache spp.) and beebalm (Monarda spp.) blossoms provide essential food for a wide array of pollinators. These fragrant mints come in many beautiful garden-worthy varieties. The annual scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea) is one of the best, offering endless bright red flowers until frost; white and pink varieties (‘Snow Nymph’ and ‘Coral Nymph’) are also available. A little deadheading will keep these annuals looking their best. Garden varieties of the Texas and Mexican native autumn sage (S. greggii) will also provide a big show of fall color, to the delight of travelling hummingbirds. Likewise, sunny colored hyssops in shades of orange (Agastache aurantiaca), pink (A. cana), and sunset hues (A. rupestris) lure many butterflies and hummingbirds eager to drink the last of the season’s nectar. The resilient horsemint (Monarda punctata) is another uniquely beautiful mint for late summer and fall that is favored by bees as is the hummingbird favorite, scarlet beebalm (M. didyma).
Gardeners seeking to lure sphinx moths and other charming evening pollinators might consider late-day bloomers like four-o-clocks (Mirabilis spp.) and ornamental angel’s trumpets (Datura spp.). Non-native ornamental tobaccos are also superb, non-invasive plants for moths. Two South American winners are the tall, white-flowered woodland tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris) and pink– and white–flowered jasmine tobacco (N. alata). Both provide wonderful evening fragrance and charming flowers that attract moths of all sorts.
Creating a sumptuous wildflower planting for pollinators is a snap because growing well-adapted, regional plants makes for easier gardening. All mentioned in this article thrive in full to partial sun and appreciate quality soil with good drainage (with the exception of swamp milkweed). Topdressing plantings with a little Black Gold Garden Compost Blend in fall will help maintain soil quality while deterring fall and winter weeds.
When the hard frosts hit, the pollinators will be gone, wintering away somewhere deep and protected or busying themselves somewhere lovely South of The Border. Either way, gardeners that plant wildflowers for pollinators can feel confident that they helped many of these creatures towards good health and survival, which helps us all.