“Get your own dang weed field”

Signs of the Season: Late Summer Wildflowers

By Shane Gibson, Environmental Education Director

Shane's garden bed is bursting with color from ironweed, snakeroot, Joe-Pye weed, black-eyed Susans, blue mist flower, and prairie dropseed.

Shane’s garden bed is bursting with color from ironweed, snakeroot, joe-pye weed, black-eyed susans, blue mistflower, and prairie dropseed.

Walking through my garden, enjoying the late summer flowers, I was reminded of a poem that I wrote some 15 years ago titled Where Wildflowers Grow.

Where wildflowers grow
Bloodroots know
Spring is upon us

Where wildflowers grow
Seedheads in snow
Paint the winter landscape…

Now that I’m thinking about late summer wildflowers, I realize my poem begins with quite a large gap in the growing season: I left out summer entirely! The spring ephemerals (lasting for a very short time) are like a pioneer’s spring tonic of spice bush that renews the spirit. And the late summer flowers feel like that last moment with your high school sweetheart before you both head off to college. You want to cherish each moment and take in all the beauty that surrounds the time together. There will always be other flowers. But one this beautiful? Change is in the air.

Monarch caterpillar on swamp milkweed.

Monarch caterpillar on swamp milkweed.

The analogy is fitting for how I feel about the flowers of late summer. The love of my life is slipping out of my grasp with each passing day. I make sure we spend time together daily. I don’t even mind that people stare as they pass by. I keep away those that could cause problems in the future.

For instance, I cut fireweed (Erechtites hieracifolius) and ragweed out of my first-year prairie. Those are the bad seeds that I want to diminish. Being this intimate with the plants allows me to see the under-growth of forbs and grasses that would otherwise go unnoticed. Passersby and neighbors surely wonder what I’m doing and why would I be nurturing this “field of weeds.”

I was once told by my uncle to “get your own dang weed field” when I tried to help my dad manage his grasses and flowers for wildlife. Well, I did just that. It just so happens that many of my favorite flowers are weeds: ironweed, Joe-Pye weed, swamp milkweed, butterfly weed, and sneezeweed to name a few. And many, if not all, work fabulously as landscaping.

I walk daily at my place in the morning or evening to view the blooms and those that rely upon their goodness. I don’t want these blooms to fade. But there is beauty in the fading blooms, too. The goldfinch shows me that. A bobbing coneflower with a school-bus-yellow bird is a lovely sight. And the underlying leaves littered with seeds of missed opportunity are equally fascinating. I collect those seeds and take them to the prairie for dispersal. My mulched path and beds will show signs of the goldfinches’ seed dispersal next spring. They surprised me with false sunflowers this year in my native flower beds.

What to put in your garden

Late summer is teeming with lovely blooms that are vital for animal life. Birds and insects can often be seen in abundance through October where wildflowers grow. You too can enjoy beautiful flowers and the wildlife they bring. Just look for these weeds and other late summer beauties:

smooth blue aster

Asters (Aster), such as Smooth Blue Aster: Sun/partial sun, 3-5 ft. tall, blue, flowers Sept-Oct. Asters are larval hosts for Pearl Crescent (heath aster), Harris Checkerspot (flat-topped aster), and support 112 butterfly and moth species.

grass leaved goldenrod

Goldenrods (Solidago), such as Grass Leaved Goldenrod: Sun, 3-4 ft. tall, yellow, flowers Sept-Oct. Supports 115 butterfly and moth species.

Tall ironweed

Tall Ironweed (Veronia altissima): Sun/partial sun, 3-5 ft. tall, purple, flowers Sept-Oct. Larval host for American Lady butterfly.

blue mist flower

Blue Mistflower (Eupatorium coelestinum): Partial sun, 1-2 ft. tall, blue, flowers Sept-Oct. Larval Host for Lined Ruby Tiger Moth and Three-lined Flower Moth. Nectar host for many long-tongued bees, butterflies, and skippers.


Autumn Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale): Sun/partial sun, 3-5 ft. tall, yellow, flowers Sept-Oct. Larval Host for Painted Lady butterfly.

joe pye

Sweet Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum ): Partial sun, 4-6 ft. tall, pink, flowers Jul-Aug. Nectar source for Swallowtail and many other butterflies.

Native wildflowers and grasses can provide beauty and interest throughout the year. If your queen-of-the-prairie is long gone, don’t worry: a spring beauty awaits…where wildflowers grow.

Note: Pictures and basic information on each flower were obtained from Spence Restoration Nursery, Stranger’s Hill Organics, and Eco Logic are great resources for Indiana native plants and have been my main plant sources. Eco Logic is having a plant sale on September 5 from 9 am-4 pm, and it’s a fundraiser for MC-IRIS.