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6 Fall Perennials Butterflies Love

By: Sherri Ribbey
Don’t forget to feed the butterflies in the fall, too. Help them out by growing one of these 4 fall perennials butterflies love.

Monarch butterfly on a purple New England aster: New England asters have loads of small single flowers that butterflies love.

Support butterflies in fall

Butterflies need your help more than ever this time of year. Fall gardens are critical to their survival, providing shelter for overwintering species and food for those that migrate. Jane Hurwitz, editor of the North American Butterfly Association’s Butterfly Gardener magazine and author of Butterfly Gardening, has years of real-world experience gardening for butterflies. She has some great suggestions about how to create a welcoming fall garden. Give a look at her design tips below, and then scroll on to find 6 fall perennials butterflies love.

Tips for designing a fall garden butterflies love

  • Keep fall cleanup to a minimum to provide shelter for eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and adults that don’t migrate. It’s beneficial for your garden, too. Keeping a 2- to 3-inch layer of fallen leaves as mulch won’t smother your plants but still protects any caterpillars that are sheltering in them. Besides that, as the leaves break down they create leaf mold, a form of compost, to enrich the soil.
  • If leaving the garden on its own in fall sounds a bit too wild for your style, designate a butterfly area that’s out of sight, such as behind the garage, or position your butterfly garden far from the house where the messiness isn’t as obvious. (Another hint: Use decorative iron fencing to give your butterfly area some structure. A fence will help keep floppy plants upright, too.)
  • Later in spring, don’t hurry to remove the previous fall’s layer of debris everywhere — give the butterflies time to get moving. Some plants will need to be uncovered, and there’s usually some dead growth that needs to be cut back. But as you do this, keep an eye out for well-camouflaged chrysalises. If you find one, carefully move the stem to an out-of-the-way spot so the butterfly can finish maturing.
  • Recent research at Cornell University suggests that one reason for the dwindling monarch population may be a lack of late-season nectar plants on their migratory routes. Grow plants that flower into fall to provide the pockets of habitat they need to refuel along the way. Other butterflies that are often active in fall, such as American ladies, red admirals, common buckeyes and sulphurs, will also benefit.
  • Whatever you choose to grow in your fall garden, plant in groups so butterflies don’t have to work as hard to find their meals. To a tiny insect with a short life span, a big patch of flowers is easier to find than one or two plants here and there.

Find other butterfly gardeners

Jane also finds connecting with other local butterfly gardeners is a great resource. Want to meet more butterfly gardeners? Visit the North American Butterfly Association website for a listing of local chapters where you can meet other butterfly gardeners.

You Might Also Like:
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Fall container butterflies will love
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Nectar and host plants for butterflies
How to identify common butterflies

6 fall perennials butterflies love

Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium spp. and hybrids)

Looking for a unique late-season focal point? Joe-Pye weed may be just the ticket. Joe-Pye weed’s leaves alone can get up to 12 inches long, while the plant itself can grow 7 feet high, sometimes even more. But don’t worry about staking: It has strong, sturdy stems. Or plant a compact cultivar, such as 'Little Joe', pictured here. Pinkmauve flowers, in 12- to 18-inch domes, bloom in late summer, and butterflies can’t resist their nectar.

Growing Tip

After the flowers fade, leave the stems standing — fuzzy seedheads will add interest to your autumn garden. If you don’t want them to reseed, cut the stems back.

Type Perennial Blooms Panicles of rosy mauve flowers in summer into fall Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 3 to 8 ft. tall, 2 to 5 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

Verbena (Verbena bonariensis)

Verbena’s rose-violet flower clusters are a butterfly banquet from late spring to frost. Besides that, it’s drought-tolerant and deer-resistant. Direct sow the seeds outside or start them inside to get flowers a bit earlier. Once you grow this verbena you probably won’t need to plant it again. It reseeds easily (and can even become too prolific in areas where it’s cold-hardy).

Growing tip

Because plants have small flowers on long, slender stems be sure to group plants together to create a more noticeable mass of color to enjoy.

Type Tender perennial (Usually grown as an annual) Blooms Rose-violet from late spring to frost Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 24 to 48 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 7 to 11

Aster (Aster spp. and hybrids)

Asters are one of the backbone flowers of autumn, almost as popular as mums. They can be airy and delicate, or they may have tall, stiff, sturdy stems. Many have cool pastel shades that make great color contrast to all of the reds and oranges you usually find in fall. You can buy asters in pots just in time for fall like mums. But if you buy starts in spring, you’ll have lots more options.

Growing Tip

Make sure to give asters even, or consistent, moisture. Some asters are notorious for losing their lower leaves if they get too dry. If that’s a concern, grow plants in front of the asters to hide the bare knees.

Type Perennial Blooms Shades of blue, pink and white in mid- to late autumn Size 4 to 72 in. tall, 12 to 24 in. wide Light Full sun Soil Moist to dry Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8

‘Fireworks’ goldenrod (Solidago rugosa)

Butterflies love goldenrod, but if you need a more compact plant for your garden, try ‘Fireworks’. Arching stems full of tiny individual flowers pack the plant and bloom a long time — up to five weeks, usually starting around mid-September. It’s an easy-to-care-for plant that’s super drought-tolerant, once established.

Growing Tips

This plant is easy to care for and doesn’t require any deadheading. Just cut back the dead stems in spring.

Type Perennial Blooms Yellow flowers from late summer to frost Light Full sun Soil Well-drained, sandy to clay Size 2 to 3 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9

‘Sheffield’ garden mum (Chrysanthemum hybrid)

The single flowers of this perennial garden mum are a better food source for butterflies than the petal-packed double flowering types sold in the fall. Plant ‘Sheffield’ in spring so it has time to establish a good root system and a better chance of surviving winter.

Growing Tip

To get the most flowers from your garden mum, be sure to provide consistent moisture and apply slow-release fertilizer with a 16-9-23 formula annually in spring.

Type Perennial Blooms Pale pink flowers from late summer to frost Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 24 to 36 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy USDA zones 5 to 9

Tall sedum (Hylotelephium spp. and hybrids)

Tall sedum is a low-maintenance perennial you can count on. It’s incredibly cold hardy, and can tolerate a wide range of difficult conditions. Tall sedum is a succulent, a plant with soft, juicy leaves and stems that store water, making it extremely drought tolerant. And it doesn’t need much soil to grow in, making it a great choice for rock gardens. The long-lasting, flat blooms are a sustained food source for butterflies and a favorite of Painted lady butterflies.

Growing Tip

Grow it in lean soil on the dry side. Rich soil makes it grow spindly and get crown rot. Shade tends to make tall sedum flop, so keep it in full sun.

Type Perennial Blooms Bloom description Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained, lean Size 18 to 24 in. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium spp. and hybrids)

Looking for a unique late-season focal point? Joe-Pye weed may be just the ticket. Joe-Pye weed’s leaves alone can get up to 12 inches long, while the plant itself can grow 7 feet high, sometimes even more. But don’t worry about staking: It has strong, sturdy stems. Or plant a compact cultivar, such as 'Little Joe', pictured here. Pinkmauve flowers, in 12- to 18-inch domes, bloom in late summer, and butterflies can’t resist their nectar.

Growing Tip

After the flowers fade, leave the stems standing — fuzzy seedheads will add interest to your autumn garden. If you don’t want them to reseed, cut the stems back.

Type Perennial Blooms Panicles of rosy mauve flowers in summer into fall Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 3 to 8 ft. tall, 2 to 5 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

‘Fireworks’ goldenrod (Solidago rugosa)

Butterflies love goldenrod, but if you need a more compact plant for your garden, try ‘Fireworks’. Arching stems full of tiny individual flowers pack the plant and bloom a long time — up to five weeks, usually starting around mid-September. It’s an easy-to-care-for plant that’s super drought-tolerant, once established.

Growing Tips

This plant is easy to care for and doesn’t require any deadheading. Just cut back the dead stems in spring.

Type Perennial Blooms Yellow flowers from late summer to frost Light Full sun Soil Well-drained, sandy to clay Size 2 to 3 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9

Verbena (Verbena bonariensis)

Verbena’s rose-violet flower clusters are a butterfly banquet from late spring to frost. Besides that, it’s drought-tolerant and deer-resistant. Direct sow the seeds outside or start them inside to get flowers a bit earlier. Once you grow this verbena you probably won’t need to plant it again. It reseeds easily (and can even become too prolific in areas where it’s cold-hardy).

Growing tip

Because plants have small flowers on long, slender stems be sure to group plants together to create a more noticeable mass of color to enjoy.

Type Tender perennial (Usually grown as an annual) Blooms Rose-violet from late spring to frost Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 24 to 48 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 7 to 11

‘Sheffield’ garden mum (Chrysanthemum hybrid)

The single flowers of this perennial garden mum are a better food source for butterflies than the petal-packed double flowering types sold in the fall. Plant ‘Sheffield’ in spring so it has time to establish a good root system and a better chance of surviving winter.

Growing Tip

To get the most flowers from your garden mum, be sure to provide consistent moisture and apply slow-release fertilizer with a 16-9-23 formula annually in spring.

Type Perennial Blooms Pale pink flowers from late summer to frost Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 24 to 36 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy USDA zones 5 to 9

Aster (Aster spp. and hybrids)

Asters are one of the backbone flowers of autumn, almost as popular as mums. They can be airy and delicate, or they may have tall, stiff, sturdy stems. Many have cool pastel shades that make great color contrast to all of the reds and oranges you usually find in fall. You can buy asters in pots just in time for fall like mums. But if you buy starts in spring, you’ll have lots more options.

Growing Tip

Make sure to give asters even, or consistent, moisture. Some asters are notorious for losing their lower leaves if they get too dry. If that’s a concern, grow plants in front of the asters to hide the bare knees.

Type Perennial Blooms Shades of blue, pink and white in mid- to late autumn Size 4 to 72 in. tall, 12 to 24 in. wide Light Full sun Soil Moist to dry Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8

Tall sedum (Hylotelephium spp. and hybrids)

Tall sedum is a low-maintenance perennial you can count on. It’s incredibly cold hardy, and can tolerate a wide range of difficult conditions. Tall sedum is a succulent, a plant with soft, juicy leaves and stems that store water, making it extremely drought tolerant. And it doesn’t need much soil to grow in, making it a great choice for rock gardens. The long-lasting, flat blooms are a sustained food source for butterflies and a favorite of Painted lady butterflies.

Growing Tip

Grow it in lean soil on the dry side. Rich soil makes it grow spindly and get crown rot. Shade tends to make tall sedum flop, so keep it in full sun.

Type Perennial Blooms Bloom description Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained, lean Size 18 to 24 in. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

Published: Oct. 1, 2019
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