Top 12 plants for autumn pollinators

Summer’s bloom-packed borders may be starting to wind down, but don’t let the buffet close early. Discover 12 top autumn-flowering plants to help pollinators through the leaner months

As flower-filled summer gives way to autumn and its mellower garden bounty of fruits and foliage, there’s a chance that the nectar and pollen on offer could fall short of what our bees, butterflies and moths need as they stock up for winter.

You can make sure you’re still providing for these invaluable insects just by introducing a few plants for autumn pollinators into your outdoor space.

Take your pick from these 12 expert recommendations, chosen by Bumblebee Conservation Trust founder Professor Dave Goulson, ecologist Dr Nick Tew and RHS Senior Wildlife Expert Helen Bostock, to give pollinators a helping hand as they prepare for hibernation.

As plants in hedgerows and verges shift tack from flowering to fruiting, the autumn flowers in gardens come into their own, providing a valuable supplement of nectar and pollen for late-flying insects

Helen Bostock, RHS Senior Wildlife Expert
1. Hylotelephium species (stonecrop or sedum)
2. Fuchsia magellanica (lady’s eardrops)
3. Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’
4. Hedera helix and H. colchica (ivy)
5. Salvia greggii and S. microphylla (autumn sage, baby sage)
6. Lonicera periclymenumL. japonica and L. caprifolium (honeysuckles)
7. Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ (sneezewort)
8. Symphyotrichum novi-belgii (Michaelmas daisy)
9. Elaeagnus x submacrophylla (oleaster or Ebbinge’s silverberry)
10. Ceratostigma plumbaginoides (hardy plumbago or leadwort)
11. Succisa pratensis (devil’s bit scabious)
12. Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree)

Top tip: to maximise benefits to pollinators, try to buy plants from pesticide-free suppliers if you can. Our list of organic nurseries is a good starting point for sourcing organic plants.

Alternatively, try growing plants from seed, or nabbing divisions/cuttings from a neighbour – which keeps costs down, too!

Find out more

1) Hylotelephium species (stonecrop, sedum)

Hylotelephium ‘Autumn Joy’
Previously included in the genus Sedum, these drought-resistant perennials come into their own at the end of the summer; their flat flowerheads crammed with tiny, starry pink flowers becoming an absolute magnet for bees during the autumn.

Low maintenance and easy to grow, stonecrops are very versatile, with a cultivar available for every setting from a sweeping herbaceous border (e.g. the ever-popular ‘Herbstfreude’ (aka ‘Autumn Joy’) to a tiny window box (e.g. the SunSparkler Series).

The striking dark-leafed ‘Bertram Anderson’, which holds an AGM, seems particularly attractive to bees, while Dave Goulson notes that ‘Autumn Joy’ is excellent not just for bees and hoverflies, but is also “famously attractive to butterflies fattening up for their winter hibernation”.

Plant it: in a sunny spot in well-drained soil, at the front of a border, in a gravel garden or rockery, or in pots or window boxes

2) Fuchsia magellanica (lady’s eardrops)

This hardy shrub, with its elegant slender blooms, is absolutely loaded with pollen and nectar. In fact, Fuchsia magellanica and its cultivars were identified in a study by Nick Tew as being responsible for a whopping 50% of the total nectar produced in 59 Bristol gardens during September and October – more than any other species.

With their long, tubular flowers, fuchsia provide abundant nectar for long-tongued bees, butterflies and moths. Blooming right up until the first frosts, this is a great plant for carrying pollinators through from late summer into early winter.

Plant it: anywhere from full sun to full shade, in the middle of a border or in a large container


3) Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’

The winner of an Award of Garden Merit, this popular dahlia is prized for its combination of bright crimson blooms and striking deep bronze foliage; creating spectacular contrast. But it isn’t just us gardeners who love it – unlike pompom and cactus varieties, the simple, open blooms of this cultivar mean that the pollen-laden stamens are readily accessible to bees, making this one of the very best dahlias to plant for pollinators.

Plant it: in the middle of a sunny border or in a large container, digging up the

tubers or moving inside over winter to protect from frost

Dahlia feature in few lists of recommended plants for pollinators, but open varieties such as this one can be fantastic magnets for bumblebees

Dave Goulson in The Garden Jungle

4) Hedera helix and Hedera colchica (ivy)

Ivy is much maligned as a garden plant, but its value to wildlife is enormous. There is even a specialist bee – the ivy bee, Colletes hederae – that depends on ivy flowers as its staple food source. This new arrival, first recorded in Britain in 2001, times its emergence for the flowering of the ivy, whose pollen it adores. While other bees are starting to think about winding down come September, the ivy bee is just getting going.

Allowing this British native plant to grow and flower where you can will encourage ivy bees and a great many other pollinators, as well as providing habitat for a wide range of invertebrates, and supporting birds with its berries and dense cover for nesting.

Plant it: you’ve probably already got it somewhere, if you just let it grow! Ivy will happily grow almost anywhere, and provides great groundcover for tricky areas such as dry shade

Ivy flowers are so in demand at the end of the season that they will positively hum with flies, bees, wasps and butterflies

Helen Bostock, RHS Senior Wildlife Expert
If you can’t quite bring yourself to encourage ivy, the related South Asian Fatsia japonica is also popular with bees. This hardy shrub will grow anywhere from full sun to full shade in moist but well-drained soil, with its large, glossy leaves exuding a touch of the exotic.

5) Salvia greggii and S. microphylla (autumn sage, baby sage)

Salvia microphylla ‘Kunth’
Anyone who grows salvias will have noticed that they are a magnet for bees. Blooming well into autumn and with flowers in almost every imaginable shade, these two species and their many cultivars were picked out as one of the top autumn nectar sources in the survey of Bristol gardens.

Salvia microphylla and two of its cultivars – the hot pink ‘Cerro Potosí’ and the pale pastel pink ‘Ribambelle’ – hold AGMs, while award-winning S. greggii cultivars include ‘Royal Bumble’ (brilliant red) and ‘Dyson’s Joy’ (pale mauve).

Plant it: near the front of a sunny, well-drained border. Some cultivars may need winter protection in particularly cold regions


6) Honeysuckles (Lonicera periclymenum, L. japonica and L. caprifolium)

Lonicera caprifolium

Honeysuckles were the final key autumn nectar source identified in the Bristol survey. Though their nectar contribution peaks in June, honeysuckles’ long blooming season means they remain an important player well into autumn. The fragrant tubular blooms of this versatile climber mostly attract moths – essential pollinators that are often overlooked in favour of their counterparts on the day shift.

A great all-rounder plant for wildlife (particularly the British native species Lonicera periclymenum), honeysuckle produces sticky crimson berries that are loved by birds. Dormice also rely on honeysuckle for both food and habitat – they build their nests from the woven bark, and feed on the nectar in the autumn.

Plant it: in sun or part shade, growing up a trellis, pergola or fence. Intensity of scent increases in the evening, so it works well planted close to a seating area

7) Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ (sneezewort)

Though tubular flowers such as those of honeysuckle, salvia and fuchsia are nectar-rich, not all pollinators have tongues long enough to reach the nectar. In contrast, open, daisy-like flowers cater for a wide audience, being particularly valuable for short-tongued solitary bees.

Helenium are fantastic

perennials for injecting showstopping colour into borders after the main summer peak, helping them to continue packing a punch well into autumn. Holding an AGM, this coppery-red cultivar comes recommended by Bumblebee Conservation Trust founder Professor Dave Goulson as one of his top 16 plants for pollinators.

Plant it: in a sunny spot towards the front of the border, providing support for best results

Heleniums have attractive daisy-like warm, glowing oranges and reds, which are very popular with bees of all sizes, but particularly with some of the smaller solitary bees

Dave Goulson in The Garden Jungle

8) Symphyotrichum novi-belgii (Michaelmas daisy)

Another open flower that is accessible to a wide range of pollinators, Michaelmas daisy is a top pick of RHS Senior Wildlife Expert Helen Bostock. Previously known as Aster novi-belgii, this late-flowering perennial is fantastic for bringing autumn colour to borders. Take your pick from the many cultivars, but remember that fewer layers of petals means more nectar!

Plant it: in full sun or part shade, in the middle of the border. Associates well with ornamental grasses. More compact cultivars will suit containers or the front of the border

9) Elaeagnus x submacrophylla (oleaster, Ebbinge’s silverberry)

Elaeagnus × ebbingei ‘Limelight’
You might not even have noticed the little creamy flowers of this popular evergreen shrub, but bees certainly do.

Previously known as Elaeagnus x ebbingei, this is a particularly late-flowering species of oleaster, blooming in October and November to provide a valuable autumn nectar source for “large numbers of honey bees and queen bumblebees fattening up for hibernation”, according to Dave Goulson.

Oleaster, or Ebbinge’s silverberry, is a real all-rounder: it’s tough and unfussy, has beautifully fragrant flowers, bears edible fruits in April, and even fixes nitrogen, boosting the nutrient value of your soil and meaning that its trimmings can be used as a nitrogen-rich mulch. 

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Elaeagnus x submacrophylla holds an AGM. Bearing glossy dark green leaves with silvery undersides, it’s elegant in its simplicity and ideal for hedging, but if you’re after something a bit more flash, try the variegated ‘Gilt Edge’ or ‘Limelight’. ‘Compacta’, meanwhile, is ideal for small gardens.

Plant it: as a hedge or evergreen focal point, in sun or part shade 

Elaeagnus are versatile plants: aside from feeding bees, they are drought- and wind-tolerant, so good for exposed and coastal situations

Dave Goulson in Gardening for Bumblebees

10) Ceratostigma plumbaginoides (hardy plumbago)

Another of Helen’s favourites, this autumn-blooming perennial has a vigorous, low-growing habit that makes it ideal for groundcover or creating a swathe of colour at the front of the border.

Vivid cobalt blue flowers are set against red-tinged foliage, whose colour intensifies as autumn progresses. Low maintenance and drought tolerant once established, hardy plumbago is most attractive to butterflies and day-flying moths.

Plant it: in full sun to part shade in well-drained soil, at the front of a border or to cover areas of bare ground

11) Succisa pratensis (devil’s bit scabious)

This British native wildflower is perfect for naturalising in meadow or wildlife areas, but equally makes a lovely addition to the herbaceous border. Lilac-blue flowers are held on tall, airy stems that rise elegantly above ths surrounding plants. 

Many scabious are magnets for bees, but Dave identifies devil’s bit scabious as the best autumn-flowering species. Easy to grow from seed, it’s also a cost-effective choice.

Plant it: in an informal border, wildlife area or wildflower meadow

Nectar-rich flowers… much loved by the last few bumblebees of the year, and also by butterflies fattening up before winter hibernation

Dave Goulson in Gardening for Bumblebees

12) Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree)

Arbutus unedo f. rubra
If you have room for a strawberry tree in your garden, it will be abuzz with bees during its blooming period of September to November. Tiny, lantern-like, white or pale pink flowers are held in attractive clusters, beautifully offset by the glossy dark green foliage.

These are followed by decorative orange or red fruits, which though edible, are very bitter. This gives the tree its species name ‘unedo’ (meaning ‘eat once’) – once you’ve tried one, you don’t generally go back for another!

Birds, however, don’t seem to mind the bitter taste and may feed on the fruits as they stock up for winter. Evergreen and reaching around 8m tall and wide, this is a lovely specimen tree for small gardens, and another of Helen’s top picks.

Plant it: in a sunny, sheltered spot, at the back of a border or freestanding. Though hardy once mature, young strawberry trees may need winter protection

What pollinators can I look out for in autumn?

Butterflies such as red admirals can be found sipping sweet juices from ripe apples and pears, but you are just as likely to see them gathering on your Michaelmas daisies; feeding up before retiring as adults to the garden shed for winter.

While the weather stays mild there will also be plenty of active bumblebees right into October, especially the common carder bumblebee, and queens of different species, who also will hole up for winter somewhere protected such as an old mouse burrow.

One of the last solitary bees to remain active late in the season is the ivy bee, so-called for its dependency on the abundant nectar and pollen found on ivy flowers. These flowers are so in demand in autumn that they will positively hum with flies, bees, wasps and butterflies.

– Helen Bostock, RHS Senior Wildlife Expert

About the author – Olivia Drake

Olivia is digital editor for science and horticulture. With a plant sciences background, she is professionally trained as a botanical horticulturist and has worked in public gardens around the UK and abroad. She is passionate about the role gardening can play in conservation.

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