Host plants and nectar plants are vitally important late in the season: nectar to attract butterflies and other pollinators such as bees, and foliage ready to be eaten providing larval food for butterflies. Everyone loves to talk about nectar plants but are missing the other half of the survival equation-food for larva that grow up to be butterflies flitting through your garden. Two varieties of perennials are top of my list for providing both-White Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) and Sweet Goldenrod (Solidago odora).
Turtlehead sustains the orange and brown Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly caterpillar which is the official Maryland insect, and Goldenrod provides a host plant for over 115 species of butterflies and moths, more than any other perennial plant. Both are easy to grow, attractive, and garden worthy of space in your perennial border or meadow.
Turtlehead is named for its pretty white blossoms which resemble a hooded turtle head poking out of its shell and the nectar attracts honeybees, hummingbirds, and other native bees. Blooming late in the season, on 36” high plants with glossy serrated foliage, it is quite a handsome plant that is resistant to deer browsing. Moist, rich soil is best, but I have seen it flourish in slightly drier conditions. Plant in sun if there is plenty of moisture. If not, then a little shade is helpful. Naturalizing by a stream or in a swampy area is best for this plant and it makes a perfect rain garden candidate. If there is a wet spot in your yard, Turtlehead will probably thrive and is hardy to zones 4 to 8. Making an attractive accent specimen in a naturalistic setting, Turtlehead pairs nicely with Lobelias, Snakeroots, and Ferns. If growing in a shaded site, it sometimes helps to pinch back the growing stems in early summer to shorten the height, so it doesn’t need staking.
Sweet Goldenrod is one of the showiest of late season flowers and attracts many garden beneficials such as syrphid flies, praying mantises, ladybugs, and assassin bugs. Migrating Monarchs flock to my goldenrod clumps in August and September. Often people mistakenly think they are allergic to the pollen but because Goldenrod is insect pollinated and sends very little pollen into the air, it usually is not the culprit. The more likely candidate, wind-pollinated Ragweed, often causes itchy eyes and runny noses, and can be mistaken for Goldenrod as it bears a passing resemblance to it.
Sweet Goldenrod has an erect, woody, seldom branching stem with alternate leaves that don’t need staking. The tiny flowers are held on plume shaped stems that resemble little stars. Topping out at 4 feet high, these plants are extremely heat and drought tolerant.
Flowering from August to September in dry to medium soils, Sweet Goldenrod has a long blooming season, which makes it a valuable source for pollinators. Also,its clumping habit, rather than a running one, merits Sweet Goldenrod room in my perennial border. It tends to stay where it is planted, forming a nice tidy clump. Anise scented leaves make this plant unattractive to deer browsing, which is another asset to planting this perennial. Drought and clay tolerant, Sweet Goldenrod would be at home planted in a cottage garden, perennial border, butterfly garden, or meadow location. The woody stems should be left up as long as possible since over-wintering insects will lay their eggs or develop pupae in the hollow stems left over from the growing season. (pic of overwintering stems of goldenrod)
A useful perennial plant that has well-known healing properties and is edible, Goldenrod can be used fresh or as a dried herb to make tea. Other uses are as a tincture, extract, dye, or in capsules. Try using the pretty golden flowers as a salad garnish and the leaves can be cooked like spinach. Sweet Goldenrod leaves has scents of anise and licorice and makes a sublime beverage tea. As a garden designer, I usually plant Sweet Goldenrod next to fall blooming purple asters, Joe Pye Weed, and pink Liatris for a nice contrast of color. I often use Sweet Goldenrod in fresh flower arrangements and let the flowers dry in the vase and they can last for weeks to brighten your home.