Column: Fall garden favorites for you and the pollinators

Monarch butterfly on joe pye weed. [Nancy Bauer/Shutterstock]
Jane Bloodworth Rowe [Courtesy]
Ed. — From the Sunday, Sept. 5, print edition.


VIRGINIA BEACH — I don’t think that I’ve ever seen as many Monarch butterflies in one place as I saw in the Kitchen Garden at the Virginia Beach Farmers Market on one recent day.  That garden, which is maintained by the Virginia Beach Master Gardeners, is a blaze of bright colors right now as the hardier summer flowers continue to bloom despite the recent heat and the lateness of the season.

While many cultivars peak and crash in the summer heat, some beauties, including zinnias, lantana, and marigolds persevere through the dog days and into the fall. In fact, zinnias and marigolds seem to have loved the recent heat wave and dry weather, and they’re blooming profusely right now. That’s a good thing because, as other flowers and summer grasses are beginning to turn brown, wither or go to seed, we need color in our landscape.

Pollinators – including hummingbirds, bees and butterflies – also need the nectar to prepare for the long migration southward or the long winter in the hive. Even after our local birds have flown to their winter homes, it’s important to provide nectar for those migrating through from further north. Our long, mild falls are conducive to fall pollinator gardens. In addition to common garden annuals such as zinnias and marigolds, there are several late blooming perennials that grow well here. They add beauty to your garden and nectar for pollinators.  

I’ve prepared a brief list of four of my favorites.

Two, including  Joe Pye weed and cardinal flower, are natives and received a shout-out in Native Plants for Southeast Virginia, a publication prepared by local experts, including representatives from Virginia Tech and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.   

Cardinal flower or lobelia cardinalis: These bright little beauties produce red blooms that, to me, somewhat resemble columbine, and I just learned a fun fact from Native Plants for Southeast Virginia. The nickname “cardinal flower” derives from the bright red robes worn by cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. It grows in either sandy or clay soil, and it attracts birds and hummingbirds. It blooms from July to October.

Joe Pye weed, including both eutrochium purpureum and eutrochium dubium: Joe Pye weed has always fascinated me when I catch a glimpse of it blooming in swamp or boggy areas. It produces purplish-pink florets or cluster flowers, and it usually blooms in very late summer or early fall. Eutrochium dubium thrives best in very swampy areas, but eutrochium purpureum can tolerate dryer soils and lives in sun or shade. It is deer-resistant.

Obedient plant, or physostegia virginiana: This plant, also sometimes called “false dragonhead,” is best planted in full sun and in groups or clusters. It produces pale purple or pink flowers. Because it’s a little spiky, it works well as a backdrop for your more compact flowers.  My experience is that, because it can grow up to three or four feet tall, it might have to be staked because it doesn’t always do well in heavy winds. Still, it’s lovely, late-blooming and a food source for pollinators.

Pineapple sage, or salvia elegans:  Every year, I give up and decide that my pineapple sage isn’t going to bloom, and every year it surprises me and produces massive blooms in late summer or early fall.  I love it mostly for its fragrant leaves, which make delightful, pineapple-scented tea, but I also love it for its red blooms that again, to me, look a little like columbine.

North Carolina Extension Service refers to it as a “hummingbird favorite” on its website, and the service recommends it because it blooms at a time of the year when there’s a dwindling supply of nectar. Take care where you set it out, though. I started about four years ago with a small container plant that I’d bought in a local nursery, and I now have a shrub that, despite being pruned several times, is still outgrowing its space.

If none of these plants work for you, there are other late blooming plants, many of which are natives, that you can choose to brighten up your life and help some nectar-hungry butterfly or hummingbird. 

You can view or download a copy of Native Plants for Southeast Virginia via Lynnhaven River Now online at

The author is a contributor to The Independent News. Her journalism has also appeared in The Virginian-Pilot.

© 2021 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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