Planting for Pollinators

One of the hottest trends in horticulture is planting for pollinators.  In tending our gardens, we all want to do our part to make it easier for butterflies, bees, and other winged friends to find the plants they need for survival. 

September is a great time to plant wildflowers.  If you keep pollinators in mind as you plant, they will come.  Try a few of these summer and late-season wildflowers in your landscape.  They are pollinator-magnets. 

Rigid Goldenrod

Goldenrods get a bad rap.  They don’t cause hay fever.  However, they do attract all sorts of wildlife to their bright yellow flowers in late summer.

Rigid Goldenrod with Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass

Aromatic Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ and ‘October Skies’

This is one of my favorite asters.  They each have nice lavender flowers in late-September into October.  These plants are abuzz with activity as pollinators seek the last sips of nectar before migrating or hibernating for the winter. 

“October Skies” aromatic aster

Swamp Milkweed

This milkweed is vital to monarchs as they migrate back south to Mexico.  The pink blooms appear at the right time to provide the energy they need to complete their journey. 

Monarch on swamp milkweed. Photo by Brad Guhr

New England Aster

This wildflower prefers a medium to moist soil.  The dark purple to pink flowers attract tremendous diversity of pollinators to the flowers in fall.  I like variety ‘Purple Dome’ with its shorter habit and dark purple flowers. 

Painted Lady butterfly on a New England aster


There are so many varieties of coneflowers.  I love the new colors but have really come to appreciate the true native species Narrow-leaf coneflower, Pale purple coneflower, Yellow purple coneflower and Purple coneflower.  The rounded cones make perfect landing pads for all sorts of insects searching for pollen.   

Photo by Emily Weaver.

Black-eyed Susan

This easy to grow wildflower is one of the best pollinator plants.  The yellow flowers with the dark center attract a host of pollinators in including Great Spangled Fritillary. 

Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’ Photo courtesy of Walters Gardens, Inc.

Liatris mucronata

Dotted gayfeather is blooming right now in the arboretum.  The lavender spikes lay lower to the ground than other taller forms but these late season wildflowers are still attractive to bees and butterflies of all shapes and sizes.   

Native Grasses

Don’t forget the native grasses.  Many pollinators overwinter in clumps of grasses such as little bluestem and switchgrass.  Besides their beautiful fall color, these denizens of the prairie provide great texture and structure in the winter garden, too.

Aster ‘October Skies’ with the dark purple blooms of ‘Purple Dome’ aster with a backdrop of little bluestem

Asters: Autumn’s Crescendo

Mention fall blooms to most gardeners and they think of chrysanthemums.  Blooming in September and October, “mums” are the major source of color in most late-season gardens.

Another group of fall-bloomers that are just as attractive, but not as well-known, are the asters.  Asters are related to chrysanthemums (both are in the Sunflower Family) and have similar daisy-like flowers.  Like chrysanthemums, asters also come in a wide variety of sizes and colors and are perennial, meaning they come up year-after-year.  There are several native asters in the collections of the Dyck Arboretum and these are discussed below.

The New England aster (Aster novae-angliae) occurs in eastern Kansas.  One of the taller species, this plant may reach three to four feet in height.  The flowers are generally a shade of purple in color, although pink and white-flowered forms have been found.  ‘Purple Dome’, ‘Hella Lacy’, ‘Alma Potschke’ and ‘Vibrant Dome’ are good varieties for the garden.

LateSummerFlowers-2008_ 044

New England Aster with Monarch

The sky blue aster (previously Aster azureus, now Aster oolentaniensis) grow two to three feet tall and has a bright blue flower.  Also occurring in eastern Kansas, this species in particularly useful as a garden plant because it can tolerate dry shade.  ‘Bluebird’ is a nice selection.

The aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius) grows further west than the previous species, and is a more drought-tolerant plant.  Its name alludes to its fragrant purple flowers and pungent foliage when bruised.  This species grows about two foot tall.  We have ‘Dream of Beauty’ (short with pink blooms), ‘October Skies’ (2’ x 2’ with light blue flowers)  and ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ (3’ x 2’ with light blue flowers).

Aster October Skies

Aster oblongifolius ‘October Skies’

The heath aster (Aster ericoides) has the smallest flowers of any in the group, but it produces them in large enough numbers to make an impressive show.  In the late summer, it is covered with tiny white daisies.  Typically, it grows to two feet tall.  This adaptable plant occurs throughout much of Kansas.  ‘Snow Flurry’ is a groundcover form only reaching 6-8 inches tall.

Fendler’s aster (Aster fendleri) is the smallest of all the Kansas asters, only reaching about eight inches in height.  Occurring in central and western Kansas on dry, rocky prairie, it is probably the most drought-tolerant of our native asters.  In September these low plants are literally covered with lavender daisies.  The variety ‘My Antonia’ would make a nice addition to a xeric garden.

A few varieties for shade would be White Woodland Aster (Aster divaricatus ‘Eastern Star’) which makes a great groundcover with white blooms and mahogany stems.  It only reaches 12 inches tall.  The other woodland aster is Blue Wood Aster (Aster cordifolius) which is taller (3’ X 3’) with loads of tiny light blue flowers.

white wood aster

White Woodland Aster

In addition to being appreciated by humans, many asters also attract many different pollinators including Monarchs.  Planting asters is a good way to bring these beautiful creatures into the home garden.

Of the asters described above, only New England aster is widely available for purchase.  We carry many of these asters at our FloraKansas plant sales.  The others can be obtained from mail-order nurseries that specialize in wildflowers.

These native wildflowers are good examples of plants that are not only beautiful and useful, but also hardy and adapted to our climate and growing conditions.  In my opinion, you should give them a try.