Although the end of the summer/early fall may seem like an odd time to think about planting, don’t be fooled! This is actually prime time to allow plants to establish and grow strong for next spring. In fact, planting in the early fall gives time for plants to establish their root system, acclimate to the new conditions, and be ready to grow as soon as the spring conditions become ideal for them to develop. In today’s post, I want to present a couple of very neat plants that can be planted now to bloom and provide resources for next spring’s pollinators. And because these are some plants that are just close to my heart, let me try to convince you to add some (or all! 😊) of these to your green spaces, so you can enjoy them next year. Let’s talk about mountain mints, beardtongues, and Culver’s roots.
Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint – Pycnanthemum tenuifolium
As its name may let you infer, this is a plant that belongs to the mint family (Lamiaceae) and, as a mint, it is very aromatic. The genus is native and restricted only to northern North America, and we are lucky to count several species within Maryland’s native flora. As is the case for most Lamiaceae, mountain mints do not only present beautiful flowers; they have been used traditionally as a food seasoning and in medicinal teas to treat colds, coughs, and fever by many Native American tribes. Although some species are currently protected in the state, some are common, one of which being the narrow-leaved mountain mint (P. tenuifolium) I want to introduce you to.
This plant is a favorite of mine because it is relatively tall (~ 3-4ft), makes a lot of flowers, attracts a bunch of insects, and tolerates conditions that many other plants don’t like. As is the case for all mountain mints, the flowers of this plant are clustered, and in this species, the flowers are white and bloom in the summer. The plants attract a very large variety of insects and for that reason are one of the recommended plants by the Xerces Society for supporting pollinators in our area. Bees of all sizes, beetles, butterflies, wasps, flies, and hoverflies… nobody can resist this beauty! And to top it all, this plant grows great in full sun and even in relatively dry conditions, which makes it a great one to plant close to roads or in those areas of our green spaces where other more water-needy plants may not do so great.
Hairy Beardtongue – Penstemon hirsutus
I have to say that I have a weakness for Penstemons specifically and plants of the whole family they belong to (the figwort family; Scrophulariaceae) generally. Their complex flowers always get to me, and plants of the genus Penstemon are to me one of those that I can look at and marvel at forever. So, this is one of the first ones I want to grow every time I can… maybe I’ll convince you to plant it too?
The genus Penstemon is almost restricted to North America, where they represent one of the largest groups of native plants on the continent. They are characterized by having tubular flowers, and their coloration varies by species, going from white, to pink, purple, red, and blue. Although there are a few species native to Maryland, and several can be grown, I want to talk a bit about the hairy beardtongue, P. hirsutus (but also check out the foxglove beartongue, P. digitalis!).
The flowers of this species are multicolored, with purple tubes tipped with yellow and white. The flowers are visited by bees (including bumblebees), hummingbirds, and butterflies, and have been described to support the adults of the Baltimore checkerspot, our state insect! The plant itself is not overly tall (~2-3ft) and makes a lot of flowers. They prefer drier conditions and full sun to some shade and will bloom in the late spring/early summer.
Culver’s Root – Veronicastrum virginicum
I feel that plants with small white flowers (like this one) are often kind of forgotten, to the benefit of showier and more colorful flowers. However, Culver’s root is a little gem native to our region that any local interested in supporting pollinators should consider having around.
Belonging to the Plantain family (Plantaginaceae), the genus counts only a couple of species, one of which is the only North American native: Culver’s root (V. virginicum). Like all members of the genus, this species presents its white flowers arranged in long spikes. This species will become taller over the years, reaching 4-5 feet at full maturity. They prefer sunny to shadier spots, where sufficient moisture is present (e.g., wood edges).
The flowers mature sequentially, and because there are so many flowers in their long spikes, a single plant is likely to flower for weeks. Besides its sustained floral display, this plant is super interesting and important for pollinators because it happens to flower at a time when few other plants flower in our region (July-August). Their white flowers attract and provide food for bees, butterflies, wasps, and (hover)flies.
By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.
Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!