September is a great time to add plants to the yard to benefit wildlife. Last week I covered some trees, shrubs, and hummingbird plants to liven up your property, and I promised to cover perennials this week.
For attracting bees, butterflies, beneficial wasps and other native pollinators, the following garden perennials top my list, from spring to fall bloom: Foxglove Beardtongue, aka Penstemon digitalis buzzes with bumble and other bees during spring. Anise Hyssop, (Agastache foeniculum) is a no-maintenance native perennial that blooms from early July to October and attracts tons of bees and butterflies, plus the occasional hummingbird. The long bloom time means it should be massed as an anchor plant for a summer pollinator garden. Pair it with masses of Mountain Mints (Pycnanthemum), which draw more pollinator attention than any garden plant I’ve ever seen. Include both Narrow-leaved and Hoary Mountain mints for a super long summer into fall bloom period.
Mountain Mints are woefully underappreciated by the landscaping and retail nursery industries, so request them by name. Next, both Swamp and Orange Milkweeds (Asclepias incarnata and A. tuberosa) are must-haves because, not only are they preferred hostplants for Monarch butterflies, but their flowers attract every imaginable bee, wasp, and butterfly.
The native perennial sunflowers in the genus Helianthus, like ‘Lemon Queen’, Woodland Sunflower, and others, can be hard to find locally, but buzz with bees in late summer before feeding many birds after seed set. Then same goes for the native version of Sneezeweed, Helenium autumnale, which is typically only available in weird cultivars that don’t resemble the native species and don’t attract much. If you can find the straight species or order it online, it attracts more bees than almost any plant I’ve ever seen in late summer, but be warned that it’s a big plant that doesn’t do dry soil.
Goldenrods and Asters are by far the most important bee plants in late summer and fall, and several are available at nurseries. I recommend encouraging wild goldenrods around your yard as I do, rather than including them in formal garden space, where they can be aggressive and spready. Both asters and goldenrods are important seed plants for birds in fall and winter. In years when they come south, Common Redpoll flocks will move down a winter beach going from one seaside goldenrod seed head to another.
A couple of shrubs that I didn’t mention last week deserve honorable mention as bee attracters: Clethra, variously known as Sweet Pepperbush or Summersweet, blooms throughout late July and August, smells amazing, and attracts more bees, wasps, and other pollinators per square inch than most other plants. It’s easily found at local nurseries and comes in compact, densely flowered varieties. Aronia, or chokeberry, is another widely available native shrub for landscaping. It feeds bees in spring, the fall color is spectacular, and birds eat the persistent fruits in winter.
There’s no question that many of the standard garden plants sold at nurseries, mostly native to Europe and Asia, can attract bees, butterflies, and birds. But there’s a lot more to biodiversity conservation than providing nectar for a few bees. So here I focused on eastern US native plants, which are more likely to be hostplants for a wide variety of native insects, from moths and butterflies to beetles, flies, and wasps. Natives are also more likely to attract some of the more specialized bee species – there are 4000 types of native bees in the US, and the European honeybee is not one of them.
Again, I invite you to visit the pollinator garden at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay sanctuary, where all of these plants and dozens of others are present and labeled. I’m sure I’ll get back to birds next week, but I hope that over the last two weeks I’ve at least planted the seed of a notion that native plant gardening can be fun and rewarding.