Expert naturalist and environmental educator Alonso Abugattas recently spoke at the sold-out 13th Annual EcoSavvy Symposium at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, Virginia. I asked Alonso to share some of his favorite native plants for attracting and supporting wildlife. Here’s his reply.
Goldenrods (Solidago spp.)
There are many different species of Goldenrods – 36 species and even more subspecies and varieties in Virginia alone! And there’s a Goldenrod for essentially every garden condition, even shade. In addition to adding late-season blooms to the garden, Goldenrods support wildlife in several ways. More than 100 Lepidoptera caterpillar species feed on them, providing a healthy supply of caterpillars for 96 percent of terrestrial birds and all our 19 bat species. Bees make great use of Goldenrods, too, including more than seven kinds of oligolectic bee species, such as Andrena solidaginis, which cannot reproduce without their pollen.
Other pollinators that utilize Goldenrods include numerous species of solitary wasps and flies and more than 13 species of grasshoppers. In addition to eating insects on the plants, many birds feed on their seeds, including goldfinches, juncos, various sparrows, pine siskins, turkeys, and indigo buntings. And a variety of mammals eat Goldenrods, like rabbits, voles, white-footed and deer mice, beaver, muskrats, groundhogs, and deer. Plus, don’t forget the many beetles, aphids, tree/leaf hoppers and spittlebugs that utilize this plant and most of the Solidago species are attractive to butterflies, especially Monarchs.
Almost all Goldenrods bloom in the fall. Cut them back around July 4th or when they grow to two feet high to help keep your plants bushy. Deadheading the first and largest flowers back to healthy foliage promotes second flowering from side buds. Most Goldenrods prefer full sun, but Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (S. caesia) is very shade tolerant. Golden Fleece Goldenrod (S. phacelata) is semi-evergreen. Other species to use include: Tall Goldenrod (S. altissima), Silverrod (S. bicolor), Erect Goldenrod (S. erecta), Zig-zag Goldenrod (S. flexicaulis), Late Goldenrod (S. gigantea), Early Goldenrod (S. juncea), Elm-leaf Goldenrod (S. ulnifolia), Sticky (Riverbank) Goldenrod (S. racemosa), and Rough Goldenrod (S. rugose), which is somewhat shade tolerant and spreads quickly by runners.
Asters (Symphyotrichum spp. and a few others)
Like Goldenrods, there are many different species of Asters – 28 in Virginia alone. Many species in the Asteraceae family (composites) are native and are wonderful choices for attracting butterflies. Asters also support many of the caterpillars, insects, birds, and mammals listed above. Care must be taken with some of the newer cultivated varieties that provide little nectar despite their showy appearance. Both New England (Aster (now Symphyotrichum) novae-angliae) and New York (Aster (now Symphyotrichum) novi-belgii) are superior species. Most types can also serve as host plants for Pearl Crescent Butterflies. White Wood Aster (Aster divaricatus , now Eurybia divaricata) is very shade tolerant but does not host any butterfly species. The Heath Asters, on the other hand, are good hosts but prefer more sun and can become a bit weedy. Most Asters are fall bloomers and can be cut back in early July to encourage bushier growth.
Milkweeds (mostly Asclepias spp.)
Milkweeds are in vogue now to help the Monarch butterflies and the 11 other caterpillar species who feed on the plants. There are 13 native Milkweed species (and four vines) in Virginia alone. The flowers attract numerous pollinators and milkweed specialist insects that depend on them to survive. Asclepias are well documented as being wonderful pollinator plants. Due to their toxic properties, they are also remarkably deer resistant. The local monarch favorite is Common Milkweed (A. syriaca), but this may not be the best choice for a formal setting because they spread by underground stolons and will not “stay” where they are planted. They are certainly quite useful in less formal and school settings and are the favorite because they seem to have the most toxic compounds (cardiac glycosides) that caterpillars need to make themselves distasteful to predators.
A better option for most gardeners might be Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata), which, despite its name, does fine in regular garden soil (even clay) and doesn’t spread by runners. If you have wet soil, try Red Milkweed (A. rubra) in addition to the Swamp Milkweed. Purple Milkweed (A. purpurascens) thrives in sandy soils and wet but well-drained conditions. Whorled or Horsetail Milkweed (A. verticellata) tends to stay short. And if you have hot, dry conditions in your yard, try Butterflyweed (A. tuberosa). Once established, it can handle droughts and even some cutting. It’s the least favored by Monarch caterpillars because it has very little toxin (cardiac glycosides) in its leaves. But other butterflies and adult monarchs love its nectar. For shadier conditions, try Green Milkweed (A. viridiflora), Four-leaved Milkweed (A. quadrifolia), and Poke Milkweed (A. exaltata).
Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)
Sunflowers help support much of the wildlife mentioned above, such as birds, beetles, caterpillars, oligolectic bees, and small mammals. While many Sunflowers are tall, try cutting them back in early July for slightly less lanky, bushier plants that still have time to bloom.
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
I want to include at least one shrub in my list, and I’m not aware of a better shrub for attracting a variety of pollinators than Buttonbush. These native shrubs grow to five to 12 feet tall and have globular, fragrant white flowers (Honeyballs). They host Lepidoptera caterpillars and 24 bird species eat from its seed heads. Buttonbush blooms best in full sun, grows well in regular garden soil, and tolerates wet conditions. They can also take severe pruning after blooming, as they’re adapted to having beavers chew them. And Buttonbush also attracts numerous nighttime nectar-feeding insects, like moths.
Alonso Abugattas is the Natural Resources Manager for Arlington County Parks and Recreation. He recently joined Bill McLaughlin, Plant Curator at the U.S. Botanic Garden, as featured speakers during the EcoSavvy Symposium, “Cultivating Biodiversity in the Home Garden.” During the symposium, attendees learned how to create healthy and diverse wildlife habitats through the use of native plants. Visit Green Spring Gardens for other upcoming events and for the dates of next year’s symposium, when available.
For more ideas, visit the Native Plants and Attracting Wildlife resources pages on Mid-Atlantic Gardener. And join our email list to receive the free Mid-Atlantic Gardener e-newsletter twice a month. All the latest gardening articles, interviews, and announcements of upcoming gardening events delivered to your in-box. Sign up Sign up today!