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Miranda Hodgson

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Choosing late season food plants for wildlife

Posted by Miranda Hodgson on 27 Jan 2014 at 05:29 PM

This year I’m going to put in more herbaceous perennial plants to extend the food season for wildlife. There are already late-flowering plants in the garden – Hesperantha coccinea (previously called Schizostylis coccinea) flowers reliably in late summer and autumn, while Sedum spp were still going strong in mid-September. In a mild autumn, Calendula will flower until the first frosts and Penstemons in sheltered areas can keep going till late. This year, however, I want to reliably fill in the gap between late flowering perennials and winter flowering plants – they must provide pollen and nectar, then go on and provide seed for birds and they must pretty much look after themselves apart from being watered sometimes and divided every few years. It would be pleasing if they’re attractive to humans as well. Not that much to ask, really. Looking back at the photographs I’ve taken during the last several years, combined with giving other people’s gardens a good look over late in the year, I’ve got a list of five plants that I hope will extend the season for as long as possible. Two of them have been in the garden for some time, but this year I’ll bulk them up for a larger display. One of the two is tall, wiry Verbena bonariensis with its clusters of tiny purple flowers. Bees and butterflies love the flowers and after flowering the seedheads attract Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) who pick out the seeds with their sharp beaks. The other plant already here is Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) with its big yellow flowers that often open late in the day. It provides large amounts of pollen and attracts, amongst others, hoverflies. Once flowering is done, the seed capsule is broken open by birds who eat the seeds. Interestingly both plants are more scented after dark than during daylight.

 A female hoverfly, possibly Criorhina asilica, on Evening Primrose.


One of the new plants in the plan went in last summer and, having now established, this year should see it take off. It is Rudbeckia laciniata 'Herbstsonne' and this stately yellow-flowered beauty will grow up to 2.5m tall and should bloom until the first frosts, though mine still has four or five flowers on it. That may be because the winter has been mild so far; the colder weather expected later this week will show how quickly the flowers succumb to frost. The flowers that have formed seedheads are already attracting finches and it’s pleasing to see that whilst the plant is tall and slim-stemmed, and the activities of finches cause them to wave around quite dramatically, it has yet to fall over.

Another plant new to the garden is a clump of Aster amellus ‘Violet Queen’ (aka 'Veilchenkönigin'). This is a fairly short Aster, up to 40cm, reputedly mildew-resistant, with pretty violet flowers that are attractive to bees and butterflies. I’m hoping that finches will come for the seeds when it finishes flowering.



Small tortoiseshell butterfly  – Aglais urticae - on Aster amellus 'Violet Queen'



Finally, the ones I’m most excited about – Heleniums. As well as providing nectar and pollen for bees, the birds will find the seeds and I shall enjoy the glorious gradations of colour, in every shade of fire, that show on each petal.



 A small bumblebee on Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’


Depending on the variety, Heleniums start flowering around June and finish in late October, so they will be ideal. I’ll be looking in particular for H. ‘Waldtraut’, H. ‘Moerheim Beauty’ and H. ‘Septembergold’. I’m so looking forward to seeing the extended display this year and I’m looking forward to seeing the wildlife take advantage of it all in the knowledge that next year, it can all take place again.


Phot's-Moll said:

I have quite a few of the plants you mention (not the same varieties, but ones I think should provide equally good woldlife food) I don't have sedums as they don't grow for me. I don't have a Helenium either - not yet anyway. I think I should get one.

on 27 Jan 2014 at 06:27 PM

Miranda Hodgson said:

Patsy, I don't think I could hold myself to getting only one Helenium. They are so lovely, the bees like them and it seems you could have Heleniums flowering from June to October.

on 27 Jan 2014 at 06:35 PM

richardpeeej said:

Lovely read Miranda. I hope that your five  plants encourage the wildlife to come into your garden at the 'bleak period'. I am looking forward to starting off some seeds soon myself. I love reading your posts ver much. Take care my friend :-)

on 27 Jan 2014 at 11:33 PM

Miranda Hodgson said:

I'm so looking forward to planting them and seeing them flower, Richard. I'll be keeping a close eye on them and will report back!

on 01 Feb 2014 at 11:29 AM

richardpeeej said:

Thanks Miranda... I will keep an eye out  ;-)

on 06 Feb 2014 at 12:15 AM