Native Plants Provide Fall Color & Feed Wildlife

Want to add some color to a small urban garden while helping out our native wildlife?  Try planting some native perennials.

Below are a few of my favorites.

Bumble bee on a shade-loving species of goldenrod.

Bumble bee on a shade-loving species of goldenrod.


Bees need food throughout the growing season, and there are many native plants that can provide a late-season meal for pollinators.

In this photo a bumblebee is visiting my blue stem goldenrod (Solidago caesia).

Blue stem goldenrod is especially prized by shade gardeners because it will bloom even when planted under a tree. But you must be patient; this plant does not even start to flower until the middle of autumn.

(Interested in finding other shade-tolerant native plants?  Here’s a great list from the NY City Parks Department. )


Swamp sunflower does fine in dry spots, too.

Swamp sunflower   is a show stopper in October.

Swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) likes a lot of sunshine, and despite the common name does NOT need a constantly wet place or a swamp. These plants do like an occasional flood of water, though, so they are especially prolific in rain gardens or roadside ditches. My own swamp sunflowers do well in their spot near the downspout next to my rain barrel.

Swamp sunflowers attract bees as soon as the buds open. We often see late-season monarch butterflies on these blooms, too. I leave them standing all winter and their seeds seem to be especially prized by birds during snow storms.

Winterberry looks great in autumn.

Winterberry looks great in autumn.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is an amazing shrub that also feeds a lot of birds in the winter. Even before the coldest weather arrives, though, these berries provide a lot of beauty.

In order to get berries you’ll need a male and female that Ilex that bloom at the same time. (Confused? Just take your smart phone to the nursery when you go shopping. There are many websites which will help you match the right male winterberry to the right female. You might also find this advice from Mr. Smarty Plants at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center very helpful. )

In spring, when the blossoms of these shrubs smell sweet and wonderful, you will find many bee species on the tiny white flowers.


Virginia Creeper isn't creepy at all.

Virginia Creeper isn’t creepy at all.

I think that Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a plant that deserves a bit more love and attention.

The leaves turn many hues of brown, bronze and red in the fall, making a great backdrop for the blue-purple berries. Those berries are prized by birds.

I think the main problem with this plant is that many people mistake it for poison ivy.  But unlike that itch-inducing plant, VA Creeper has five leaves — not three.  (Every one seems to learn this famous cautionary rhyme at some point in their childhood, usually after an unfortunate encounter with poison ivy: leaves of three, let it be.)

As the Missouri Botanical Garden notes on their website, Virginia creeper is great for covering eyesores, like stumps. In our yard, we’ve chosen to let Virginia Creeper cover a shed and drape itself over a wooden fence. This amused one of our local arborists, who volunteered to remove it for a fee. He’d never met anyone who loved that plant, he said.

“Well, first time for everything,” I told him with a laugh.

Virginia creeper can cover a blah fence.

Virginia creeper can cover a blah fence.

New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) are the flower that everyone forgets to include in their landscape plan.  But honestly, once you see them in bloom in someone else’s garden in the fall you really really want them.  The trick is finding a place where they won’t look weedy or forlorn the rest of the year.  Because although they look great in full bloom, the stems of asters don’t always look so great in spring and early summer.

New England AstersIn our garden, we’ve found a spot just to the left of the front yard where the asters can get big and tall between some Amsonia and some black-eyed susans without upstaging any other flower in the summer.

I find that if I cut my asters in half around July 4th, I am rewarded with shorter asters that bloom very prolifically in October. Those blooms, in turn, attract a lot of bees and late season butterflies.








One Thought on “Native Plants Provide Fall Color & Feed Wildlife

  1. Andrew White on October 23, 2016 at 3:17 pm said:

    I agree, Virginia Creeper is underused. In the garden where I work it’s turned a rich dark wine for fall, beautiful!

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