Planting fall-blooming flowers for pollinators

What should you plant for pollinators to bloom during the late show–that short or long time period between hot, hot days and the first freeze? Worked into this post are my favorite fall-blooming flowers for pollinators. Many of these were chosen specifically to extend the bloom season as long as possible. We invite pollinators to our gardens by growing plants they love all summer. We plant natives to draw them in as adults and larvae–a good thing–but sometimes we forget about the great journeys some of them must make for winter–or, feeding them until they sleep the big sleep.

Bumblebee flying to another bloom on Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'October Skies.'
Bumblebee flying to another bloom on Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies.’

Begin with asters like the one above. There are so many native and non-native asters from which to choose. I grow several including ‘Alma Potschke’, ‘September Ruby’ and ‘Bonnie Blue’ which I added this year. I already grew ‘October Skies’, heath aster, a pink heath aster, ‘Hella Lacy’, ‘Bluebird’ and some others including a climbing aster, Aster carolinianus, Russell Studebaker gave me last year. Thank you again Russell!

Most asters in the U.S. are no longer part of the true aster family, but instead are listed as Symphyotrichum, I call them asters here for simplification. Who can type that word over and over let alone pronounce it?

Depending upon the variety, asters have different bloom times and flowers of different sizes. This is important because smaller hoverflies and tiny bees favor the smaller blooming asters like the heath asters and S. drummondii. If you want larger flowers, may I suggest ‘Hella Lacy’, ‘Bluebird’, ‘September Ruby’ and ‘Alma Potschke?’ Monarch butterflies seem especially attracted to ‘Bluebird’s’ large blooms.

‘October Skies’ has medium sized flowers. ‘Hella Lacy’ and ‘September Ruby’ are nearly finished, but my willow aster, S. prenanthoides hasn’t even started. Every aster I have is wonderful. Many are blue. Some are pink. Some are hot pink, and others are white. If you live locally, try Bustani Plant Farm in the fall for asters. He has a nice selection, and yes, I grow them all. Plant Delights also has a great selection.

Gulf Fritillary on mountain mint. I don't know which type of mountain mint I have, but it blooms all summer and fall.
Gulf Fritillary on mountain mint. I don’t know which type of mountain mint I have, but it blooms all summer and fall.

We owe it to our bees, birds, moths, wasps, butterflies and hover flies to grow plants that will feed them up until the big freeze.

Native mountain mints are also great pollinator plants. In fact, mountain mint is one of my best pollinator magnets because it blooms all through summer and into fall. However, it is a mint so keep that in mind when you plant it. Some of the asters, like drummond’s aster and willow aster, are also quite aggressive in wetter areas. Try planting them in dryer areas.

I think I love my pollinator posts best. A little bit about the process to get these photos of big burly bumblebees or the tiniest hover fly first, I have to wait until the sun comes up and warms the creatures’ wings which can make it difficult to get the pure colors. I usually look about the day before to see which plants are getting the most pollinator action–kind of like a singles bar on Saturday night. Because the pollinators are very aware of me, I walk by and then come back to sit down. At first, they fly away. I hold the camera in my hands and extend the lens so I won’t jar them when they come back. It’s very heavy so I brace myself to get a clean shot. Before long, a few “brave” bees fly in and resume their activity. Bumblebees are always ready to get back into the thick of things.

Aster novae-angliae ‘Hella Lacy’ blooms earlier than heath aster and willow aster.
Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Hella Lacy’ aster blooms earlier than heath aster and willow aster.

I work hard to compose the shot, but you don’t have long because they flit back and forth among the flowers, and in the fall, they seem to sense the urgency. I set the camera on continuous shooting so that I can capture them in flight or even crawling from flower to flower. I thank my lucky stars that digital cameras are now the norm. By looking so closely, you see all kinds of things like one bee bumping another, or one cleaning her little face. Time slows down, and they rhythm of life hums along.

A type of hoverfly on heath aster I think, but I'm no expert.
A type of hoverfly on Symphyotrichum ericoides, heath aster I think, but I’m no expert. If someone else knows, please tell me the I.D.

I may sit in one spot for ten or fifteen minutes trying to shoot this one or that. They would rather I leave them alone. They don’t know that I’m trying to raise awareness of them and their benefit to gardens everywhere.

Skipper butterfly resting on daylily foliage.
Skipper butterfly resting on daylily foliage.

I saw a Monarch the other day, first in Guilford Gardens when I visited, and later in my own garden. This has troubled me ever since. I told Claire this morning as I drove her to school that in my childhood, I would see waves of orange in late summer and fall. Monarchs floated across the sky and were a common occurrence. It was nothing to see hundreds of them, but they were always awe inspiring. I also saw so many migrating birds, black as pitch against the blue.

Fall-blooming flowers for pollinators. Bumblebee on Symphyotrichum laeve 'Bluebird.' There are a lot of bumblebees and hoverflies that look like bumbles here now.
Bumblebee on Symphyotrichum laeve ‘Bluebird.’ There are many bumblebees and hoverflies that mimic them here now.They are all serious business too. No lollygagging like in the summer. They are storing up energy while the flowers bloom.

I plant for adult pollinators and their young, and yet, I still don’t seem to have enough milkweeds for my Monarchs. I will try to do better next year. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the Monarch I captured nectaring on a sunflower in Guilford Gardens. I think the backlighting was magnificent. Although sunflowers don’t normally bloom in the fall, you can sow successive seed plantings and have sunflowers all summer and fall. You just have to remember to put in the seeds which is something I have a hard time doing.

Sunflower with Monarch butterfly.
Sunflower with Monarch butterfly.

You might not think of crapemyrtles when planning your fall garden, but you should. Check out the honeybee flying in the top photo. He spent a lot of time working over this very dwarf crapemyrtle. Here’s another shot of the same honeybee coming in for a landing. Since I don’t keep bees, one of my neighbors must. I need to find out so I can buy some honey.

Honeybee flying in to Chickasaw crapemyrtle.
Honeybee flying in to Chickasaw crapemyrtle.

Mums are also wonderful plants that help out our pollinator friends. I have several garden mums too, but none of them are blooming yet. They seem a little late to me this year, but I’m starting to see color on the buds. It won’t be long now. Here are a few photos from previous years.

Dendranthema (a/k/a Chrysanthemum) 'Will's Wonderful' from 2011.
Dendranthema (a/k/a Chrysanthemum) ‘Will’s Wonderful’ from 2011.
'Sheffield Pink' mum photographed in my garden in October 2010.
‘Sheffield Pink’ mum photographed in my garden in October 2010.

The silvery leaves of Dendranthema pacificum are attractive even when it isn’t in bloom.

Dendranthema pacificum mum is the latest to bloom.
Dendranthema pacificum mum is the latest to bloom.

You may not consider salvias when planning for fall, but some continue to bloom until a freeze providing nectar for bees. Salvia ‘Mystic Spires Blue’ is one of these, and the bumblebees are constantly sipping nectar from it. Other salvias, like S. vanhoutteidon’t begin to bloom in my climate until late summer, but they are worth the wait. Below, a bumblebee is piercing the bloom to rob nectar from the flower because it can’t fit inside the small tubular blooms of S. hyb. ‘Wendy’s Wish.’ The next time you’re in the garden sit very still and try to catch your bumbles doing something similar. It’s fascinating. I learned about nectar robbing from my friend Gail in her post, Nectar Robbers.

Bumblebee piercing the bloom of 'Wendy's Wish' salvia.
Bumblebee piercing the bloom of ‘Wendy’s Wish’ salvia to rob the nectar.

I hope this post convinces you next spring to add some plants specifically designed to bloom in the fall. Having a four-season garden is all about planning. If you have holes that need filling, please consider high nectar plants like the ones above for your garden. Your pollinators will thank you by visiting again and again.

24 Replies to “Planting fall-blooming flowers for pollinators”

  1. I so enjoy the various pollinators that visit my garden, but I think their favorite are the dill flowers! On a warm a sunny day recently, there were countless different varieties of bees, wasps, hoverflies, ladybugs, butterflies, house flies, you name it. And they’re pretty too!

    1. Hey Robin, yes, those pollinators love herbal blooms. I also think fennel, either the bronze type or the regular one, is great for pollinators. I see everyone belly up to the bar on that one.

  2. Great post with some very beautiful flowers and photographs. I love seeing Honeybees in the gardens and I had quite a few this year and no idea where they came from. Wish I could grow crapemyrtle here. They are so lovely this time of the year.

  3. These are great ideas! I’m working on a large terrarium project – it might almost be called a greenhouse! – designed for fall blooming, and this was perfect inspiration! Cheers!

  4. I need to add asters. Have several varieties of Salvias and the late-blooming Boneset which is my best pollinator magnet. I’m thinking it would grow just fine in OK, too, if anyone is interested. I love ‘Wendy’s Wish’ salvia but it acts like an annual for me in central TX, though it is sold as a perennial here. Does it winter over for you?

    1. Hi Sandy, I think boneset does very well in Oklahoma although I don’t have it in my garden. Thanks for the idea. As for ‘Wendy’s Wish’, it does not overwinter here. I do take cuttings in the fall and put them in my greenhouse. I’ve also taken plants indoors, but that’s a lot of trouble. I sometimes just buy it as an annual. I really love the dark red version of this salvia the best, but ‘Wendy’s Wish’ is a much stronger plant here.

  5. Great ideas, Dee, and your photos are fantastic! Some of my asters are already done blooming, but ever since the first blooms appeared, I have noticed a constant hum of activity on them. Beautiful photo of one of my favorites, ‘Wendy’s Wish’–I plant it for the hummingbirds, but it’s good to know the bees like it, too. Also, great tips on photographing these creatures. My best photos of pollinators are often accidental, when I didn’t realize there was a creature there until I download my photos:)

  6. Isn’t it great fun photographing pollinators?! Your captures are great, and the plant ideas are so helpful. I’m working on adding more fall bloomers into my garden. It’s such an important time for the pollinators. The pollinator garden I worked on this season has had something blooming since early spring, and the Goldenrods, Asters, and Anise Hyssops are still going strong. Nice blog post!

    1. Hi Beth, I’ve been working for the last five years to have something beautiful blooming every month that pollinators are active. It’s harder than it sounds. You must work in a neat garden. My goldenrods were done at the end of September. However, the asters are still going strong.

    1. Hey Kathy! Continuous shooting is the only way I can catch some of them. Otherwise, they are much too fast. Plus, it makes for a neat slideshow if you want.

  7. Beautiful pictures. Would you plant milkweed in the fall or wait until spring? We used to see hundreds of monarchs but haven’t seen as many with the drought we have had. This year though we were surprised to find hundreds on the mulberry trees. Awesome sight.

  8. Hooray for pollinators! Huzzah for gardeners who plant for pollinators! Your photos are magnificent–thanks for sharing the bounty of fall.

  9. Dee, I love your pollinators~It makes me happy to see so many different kinds of pollinators enjoying your beautiful garden. Thank you for the link to my post, aren’t bees just the cleverest little critters! xogail

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