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Birds and Summer Perennials

by Liz Magnanti; photos by Jane Milliman

The approaching fall brings with it that magical time when garden centers put their perennials on sale! Now is a great time to get a head start on your garden for next year. Planting in the fall gives the plants a chance to get their root systems growing and can make for more successful growth the next year. Here are some of my favorite flowering plants that are both beautiful and will attract birds and butterflies.

Cardinal flower

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
This plant attracts hummingbirds to it like no other plant or feeder I have in the garden. It has one- to three-foot-tall spikes of beautiful scarlet flowers that are a fantastic source of nectar. It thrives in wet conditions but will also do well in an average garden setting. The plant doesn’t live long, but because it self-sows it will reseed itself each year.

Joe Pye weed

Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium spp.)
I have always had success with Joe Pye weed no matter where I plant it. It thrives in sunny locations but will bloom even in shade. The plant can grow tall after several years—sometimes up to eight feet! Joe Pye is a wonderful source of nectar for bees and butterflies, and juncos and finches will eat its seeds over the winter. I suggest planting this in a place in the garden that has been unsuccessful in growing other plants. Just make sure to prepare for how tall it can get.


Coneflower (Echinacea spp.)
Coneflower is great because you can find it everywhere. There are many varieties in pink, purple, white, yellow, and orange—some tall, some short. There is a type of coneflower for any empty sunny spot you are looking to fill. The flower provides nectar for butterflies, especially monarchs, silver-spotted skippers, and swallowtails. When it goes to seed it’s a treat for goldfinches all winter long.


Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)
The milkweed plant is essential to the development of the monarch butterfly. The female monarch lays her eggs on the plant and, once those eggs hatch, the caterpillars are leaf-eating machines. The flowers milkweed produces contain nectar that feeds butterflies as well as bees and other pollinators. My favorite milkweed is the orange variety called butterfly weed. (Asclepias tuberosa.) Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is the other variety you will most often find in garden centers. This species can be pink, purple, or white in color. The common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) that is usually found in fields is great in large gardens, but can easily overtake other plants in a small one. Milkweed is easy to grow from seed. It has large, showy seed pods that can be collected once the pods  become dry and begin to split.

New England aster

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
When gardening for pollinators it is important to plant a variety of flowers that will bloom throughout the season. Asters are small, fall-blooming flowers that tend to flower during the time many birds are migrating. Hummingbirds will sip from its flowers as they make their way down south for the winter. Butterflies such as the clouded sulphur, painted lady, and red admiral will also drink its nectar. Chickadees and finches will eat aster seeds throughout the winter.


Sedum (Sedum spp.)
Sedums like ‘Autumn Joy’ are another type of plant that blooms late in the season, giving honeybees and other insects a source of pollen and nectar at the end of the summer and fall. Wild stonecrop (Sedum ternatum) is a shade-tolerant species that makes a great ground cover in the garden. This variety blooms in April to May. It makes a wonderful garden edge and will grow in rock gardens.

Bee balm

Bee balm (Monarda spp.)
Bee balm is one of my favorites for a few reasons. It is an herb that has a great smell and can be used in cooking! Even better, its blooms attract hummingbirds and seem to be a favorite flower of the hummingbird clearwing moth. This day-flying moth gets its name from looking strikingly similar to the hummingbird and having very similar flying and feeding behaviors!

Butterfly bush

Butterfly Bush (Buddleia spp.)
Although not native, the butterfly bush is like a magnet to butterflies. I have yet to find another nectar-producing plant that comes close to attracting butterflies to the garden. This plant is very hardy and can even beplanted in containers. Many different colors are available, including some that are tri-color or rainbow. The leaves of the plant won’t offer nutrition to caterpillars, but the flowers attract enough butterflies to make up for that.

All of the plants listed here, with the exception of the butterfly bush, are natives. Not only is this good for our local wildlife, but it also means they often require less maintenance. Once established, these plants will need very little extra attention, be it watering or fertilizing. The next few weeks are a perfect time to fill in any holes you have in your garden, and you should be able to get perennials at a great deal! Take advantage of it and you will thank yourself come spring!

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Brighton.

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