Bring in the Bees!
Every plant that requires an insect pollinator will have devised strategies to attract the type of pollinator it needs, but some plants draw a real profusion of bees, particularly in late summer and fall. If you have a sunny spot and are looking for colorful plants that attract plenty of bees here are several that are pollinator magnets.
New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) is tall growing and at 5-7’ tall is a native for the back of the border. Producing loose clusters of bright purple flowers it is visited by bees and butterflies. While it prefers moist soil it will grow equally well in regular garden conditions. If something shorter is required, look out for the shorter and more delicate V. lettermannii “Iron Butterfly” which gets to about 4’ tall with the same deep purple flower clusters.
Perfect companions for ironweed are the bright yellow flower heads of goldenrod (Solidago spp.) Canada goldenrod (S. canadensis) is a common sight in New England and given favorable conditions will grown 4-6’ tall. Bees love its many flowers and on warm days will be found busily swarming all over the flower heads. S. rugosa “Fireworks” offers a more compact plant and if space is at a premium, the tiny S. rugosa “Little Lemon” offers the same flower benefits on a 12” tall plant.
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) with its candles of purple blue flowers is a northern native perennial that also brings plenty of bees to the garden. Many native Agastache are naturally found in the south-west of the country where they are adapted to heat and drought. Fortunately for gardeners in the north-east, cultivars have been bred to give us the orange, pink and red flowers of these hummingbird mints while having greater tolerance for cold and moisture that our gardens bring.
Sedum in all its forms is another perennial that brings bees in numbers. The succulent pink flowered cultivars such as Hylotelephium spectabile “Autumn Joy” provide the perfect landing pad for bees to feed. Growing for the most part between 1-2’ tall these perennials make a colorful statement at the front of the border as their foliage is also attractive. Most cultivars have bluish-green succulent leaves, but H. telephium “Matrona” has purplish red leaves while H. spectabile “Frosted Fire” has attractive variegated foliage.
While butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.) is well known for its ability to attract pollinators, bluebeard (Caryopteris spp.) is another shrub that hums with busy pollinators when in bloom. With delicate aromatic foliage gray-green or golden in color, this drought tolerant sub shrub produces clusters of blue flowers that bumble bees love.
Daisies are always popular with pollinators and in late summer and fall there are two types of this perennial that particularly draw in the pollinators. Asters in all their forms are attractive to bees, and native species are adapted to both sun and shade. New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) love the sun, while those such as white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) and big-leaf aster (E. macrophylla) prefer shady conditions.
Montauk daisies (Nipponanthemum nipponicum) are a favorite of mine as they extend the flowering season well into fall, often into October. They are popular with the last of the season’s pollinators, bees and butterflies alike, and mature plants can form a shrubby mound up to 3’ high and wide. As their stems do not die back each winter, the trick to keeping them looking good is to prune them back by about half each spring to encourage sturdy and bushy new growth.
Bugbane (Actaea spp.) is one for you shade gardeners. The native A. racemosa produces clusters of leaves, similar in appearance to astilbe, but come late summer it sends up tall flower stems with spikes of small white flowers which can reach 6’ tall. These stems are not dense, so while the height suggests placement at the back of a border, the view beyond is not obstructed, so this plant can be strategically placed at the front of borders too. Cultivars of A. simplex, a shorter Asian species, can often come with purple foliage, which set off their white flowers wonderfully. This is a perennial with scented flowers, and fortunately the scent is strong enough that it is not necessary to compete with the bees in order to enjoy it.
And to round out this list of fall pollinator magnets is the tree seven son flower (Heptacodium miconioides). Grown either as a multi stemmed shrub or single trunk tree seven son flower reaches 15-20’ tall. For most of the growing season its green leaves form a backdrop to other blooming plants, but by September it produces large clusters of tiny white scented flowers that draw in all sorts of bees. Once the flowers fade the sepals remain making it seem as if the flowers have turned from white to rosy pink. This tree also offers winter interest as it has peeling bark.
These are not the only flowers that pollinators love, but represent a snapshot of those which draw them in as summer starts to wane and fall takes center stage.