From the Ground Up: Migrating pollinators need fall flowers

Last Tuesday, I saw a monarch butterfly. Normally, this wouldn’t be such a noteworthy experience, except for one fact: compared to last year, when I raised and released monarchs, this was the first — and so far, only — monarch butterfly I’d seen in our garden all season.

The reason? This year we had an upsurge in the number of deer in the neighborhood, and there were four new Bambis grazing their way through everyone’s yards. Plants that had previously been “deer proof” were no match for these hungry young creatures. An acquaintance told me, “Young deer don’t know what’s good to eat and what’s not. So, they’ll try everything while they figure it out. Some of those plants will recover.”

That wasn’t as good news as it sounded. The butterfly weed got chomped down nearly to the roots just as it had started to flower. The plants did eventually begin to recover, but not in time to blossom and attract adult butterflies to lay eggs.

So, you can understand the leap of heart I experienced on seeing that one orange and black butterfly last week. The insect landed on a bright yellow marigold blossom and hopefully managed a sip of nectar before taking flight again, heading south, toward the monarchs’ overwintering grounds in Mexico.

In that moment, I realized that not only had the hungry deer decimated any hope of providing a breeding ground for monarchs, but they had also destroyed the promise of the fall-blooming perennials that provide much-needed food for these migrants. There are no blossoms on the asters, the goldenrod, turtlehead, or Joe-Pye weed.

Planting native, fall-blooming perennials not only brings beauty to our yards and gardens, but also provides much-needed food resources for fall migrants; not just the monarchs, but also hummingbirds. There are many to choose from. And next season, I will be proactive and use “Deer Off” or other spray-on deterrents to protect the plants. Here are several fall beauties that top the list:

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)

Growing 2 to 3 feet tall in sun or part shade, goldenrod is highly drought tolerant and nearly foolproof, Goldenrod typically gets blamed for hay fever, but no worries! It’s ragweed, with its small nondescript flowers, that’s the culprit.

Purple Aster (Aster spp.)

Purple asters grow roughly 2 or 3 feet tall, are drought tolerant, and are adapted to both sun and part shade. They are an abundant food source for a variety of native birds, butterflies, bees, and other insects and wildlife.

Maximillian Sunflower (Helianthus maximiliana)

Unlike its more widely known, summer-blooming annual relatives, Maximilian sunflower is a perennial fall-blooming species. It grows 5 to 8 feet in height in dense clumps with three-inch yellow blooms. Extremely drought tolerant.

Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum)

Joe Pye weed starts to bloom in late summer and keeps going well into fall. Butterflies love it. Plant it in full sun in rich, moist soil, and give it lots of space.

Bugbane (Cimifuga spp.)

Also known as black cohosh and snakeroot, bugbane grows up to 6 feet tall and is topped with 12- to 18-inch wispy white, honey-scented flower spikes. Bugbane likes rich, moist soil and prefers partial shade, though it will tolerate full sun in cool climates.

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‘Autumn Joy’ Sedum (Sedum spp.)Non-native

A non-native to North America, this widely adapted and non-invasive species is often utilized in wildlife gardens, where it is frequented by butterflies.

This is a partial list from Modern Farmer. For more information, go to

Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Pennsylvania.