Late-season Butterfly Flowers for Your Garden

Late-season butterfly flowers are critical to the health of these important pollinators. The nectar they provide helps the insects survive the winter. Here are some great plants for the job.

by Jessica Walliser
PHOTO: Jessica Walliser

Summer gardens are typically flush with blooms that butterflies can sip nectar from, but did you know that late-season butterfly flowers are extra important to these beautiful insects?

Why Are Late-season Butterfly Flowers So Important?

While monarchs fly south for the winter, most other North American butterfly species stay in our gardens for the winter, overwintering as either adults, caterpillars or pupae. In order to support those species that overwinter as adults, such as commas, mourning cloaks and question marks, we need to provide them with lots of autumn nectar sources so they have enough food stored in their bodies to make it through their winter hibernation.

Late-season butterfly flowers also help other insect species as well, by providing them with a source of nectar and pollen just in time to fatten up their food stores for the winter. Ladybugs, soldier beetles, native bees and lots of other insects will also find these plants attractive and helpful.

The Best Late-season Butterfly Flowers for Your Garden

While there are many late bloomers you can plant in the landscape, not all of them are good nectar sources for butterflies. Butterflies prefer flowers with large landing pads so they can position themselves correctly on the plant in order to access the nectar. And, they tend to avoid double flowers with thick layers of petals. These flowers have nectaries that are difficult to access, or sometimes, they have no nectaries at all.

Here are some of my favorite late-season butterfly flowers.

Tartarian aster (Aster tataricus): This tall aster reaches up to 6 feet in height and produces large clusters of beautiful lavender flowers with yellow centers. The stems are very sturdy and do not require staking as long as the plant is in full sun.

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Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii): A perennial sunflower that bears masses of 2-3 inch wide bright yellow flowers up the length of its stems, Maximilian sunflower is tough as nails. The plants reach between 6 and 8 feet tall.

Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida): A beautiful perennial that reaches between 3 and 5 feet tall, stiff goldenrod produces showy yellow flat-topped clusters of flowers. It requires very little in terms of care, and is in bloom from late summer through autumn.

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae): New England asters bear pink to purple flowers with yellow centers. This large aster reaches 4 to 6 feet in height, though there are many different cultivars that don’t grow as tall and produce blooms in different colors.

Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum): One of the easiest late-season butterfly flowers, Joe Pye weed is an exceptional nectar source for many butterflies and other native pollinators. Topping out at 5 feet in height, this plant produces mauve to pink clusters of fuzzy flowers atop straight, strong stems.

Stonecrop (Sedum spp.): This large genus of plants has many species and cultivars that bloom late in the season. The leaves of sedums are water-filled and succulent, making it a great plant for dry areas of the landscape. The flowers come in many colors, depending on the species and cultivar you choose.

Helen’s flower (Helenium spp.): These late-season butterfly flowers produce small daisy-like flowers at the tops of their stems. They’re very prolific and seldom need staking. If you pinch the plants back in the early spring, you’ll both delay their bloom time and encourage branching and therefore more flowers.

Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata): The deep purple blooms of ironweed are late-season butterfly flowers those living in the northeastern U.S. commonly see on roadsides and in meadows. However, this plant is very garden-worthy as well. The upright stems are strong and the flowers are prolific and very butterfly-friendly.

I hope you’ll consider adding some of these beautiful late-season butterfly flowers to your landscape.

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