By the time summer’s finale fizzles and lovingly tended garden plants fade, many avid gardeners are ready to throw in the trowel. But there are many plants well beyond traditional garden mums that save their best for last. By adding a few of these “late bloomers” to your garden, you’ll extend the flowering season, plus beautify your backyard by attracting butterflies!
“Although we see butterflies mostly in the spring and summer, it’s important to remember that many still have a very strong need for nectar sources in the fall,” says Celia Stuart Whitman, director of the Day Butterfly Center at Callaway Gardens in Georgia. “Monarchs, for example, migrate thousands of miles and need good nectar sources along the way to successfully arrive at their overwintering sites in Mexico and southern California.”
Even butterflies that don’t migrate could use extra nourishment in fall.
“Many other butterflies overwinter in various life stages,” Celia says. “Some overwinter as eggs, and the adults that lay them need that extra nutritional boost at the end of the season to produce large numbers of healthy eggs that can withstand the winter. Late-blooming flowers, or even a second round of summer nectar plants, help these butterflies get a boost.”
Many flowers produce nectar, which adult butterflies feed on, but some do a better job than others of attracting them. For my garden, I try to stick with plants that have orange, red, purple, yellow and pink blossoms. When selecting plants, remember that bigger isn’t always better. Short-tubed flowers that grow in clusters—like lantana, sedum and pentas—are particularly effective because it’s easy for the butterflies to reach the nectar. Plus, an oversized hibiscus flower actually yields less nectar than many diminutive blossoms. For the best results, plant butterfly-friendly flowers in groups. These insects prefer a healthy stand of flowers where they can linger over a meal rather than flit from one solitary specimen to another.
Fortunately, there are many flowers that attract butterflies and suitable for almost any garden. Here are a few:
Sedums. These easy-to-grow plants actually prefer poor gravelly soils in a sunny spot with good drainage. Many species are available, and depending on where you live, they can be annuals, evergreens, semi-evergreens or hardy. The name of one of the top picks, Autumn Joy, says it all.
Pink and purple asters. These plants can reach heights of 24 to 60 inches, but shearing in late May will produce a pleasing, compact mound with loads of daisy-like blooms. Depending on species and location, asters can be annuals, perennials or biennials.
Salvia. This group of perennials and annuals bloom until the first hard frost. There are lots of species to choose from, and all produce long tubular blossoms that attract swallowtails, fritillaries and other butterflies with long proboscises needed to extract the nectar.
Lantana. Clusters of these small tubular flowers are a favorite of butterflies. They’re often grown as annuals in colder regions, and will begin blooming in summer and last well into fall until there’s a killing frost. In milder regions, lantana may grow into a shrub that’s 6 feet tall.
Penta. These plants are not hardy to Canadian or American winters in most areas, but are annuals that butterflies love. The clusters of star-shaped flowers are often seen in brilliant red and are perfect for growing in beds, borders and even containers on a patio.
Dark Night Bluebeard. In fall, this deciduous shrub, botanically known as Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Dark Night,’ produces clusters of gorgeous deep-blue flowers set off by silvery-green foliage. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall, with a similar spread, and is hardy in Zones 5 to 9. Once established, it’s drought-tolerant, too.
There are lots of other late bloomers to choose from. Choose native varieties when possible to ensure they can handle an early frost or two. Visit a local nursery or contact your county Extension service to find the late-blooming plants that work best in your area.