Growbag Blog

10 perfect autumn plants for insects


Caroline’s increasing competence as a gardener meant I was reasonably relaxed when she accompanied me to an innovative event at the hallowed horticultural Mecca, Great Dixter, last week, without too much fear of embarrassment.

During the presentation an important fact emerged; an ecological audit had revealed the garden areas had a higher biodiversity count than much of the surrounding countryside, particularly insect life.

But climate change means some of our insects are now on the wing later in Autumn and earlier in Spring, so our plants need to be there for them – later and earlier – than they have been.

This week we are listing 10 brilliant plants to cover the Autumn shift:

1.Clematis rehderiana. Although some plants will have started flowering in midsummer and are still going now, I think it’s nice to bring something new to the table in Autumn and this mighty species clematis is just the ticket. Not for the faint-hearted, it drapes itself with the same abandon that a C. montana will in spring.

Clematis rehderiana
Clematis rehderiana creates a carpet of nectar-rich flowers right into Autumn to give our pollinators a boost just when they need it

2 Aconitum carmichaelii A really classy latecomer beautifully designed to accommodate smaller bees. It’s very easy to grow and before Caroline moans that it wouldn’t stand a Scottish equinox gale, here it is standing in the teeth of a southwesterly on the Hebridean Isle of Islay.

Aconitum carmichaelii’Arendsii’
Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’ bringing a welcome late shot of colour and nectar to the proceedings.

3 Clerodendrum bungei. The magnificent pink domes of this exciting sub-shrub are just the ticket for a queen bee to have her final banquet before hunkering down for the winter. It has a suckering habit so needs a firm hand on the tiller at times – but well worth the effort.

Clerodendrum bungei
Clerodendrum bungei – rather a mouthful of a name but it somehow suits this whopping autumn stunner.


Yes, and to know that the Great Butterfly Count reported an increase in butterflies this year felt like a solid Blue Peter badge for all of us who’ve pored over the ‘Good for Pollinators’ pages of plant catalogue. We might be making the difference, and we can do more!

4. Abelia grandiflora. My first candidate for providing an extravagant buffet for the late foragers would be Abelia. Amongst a host of other partakers, these carpenter bees were getting quite delirious among their pretty flowers. 

Whoa, here’s an insect and a half! It’s a carpenter bee having fun on the Abelia flowers

These are quite big and menacing-looking beasties, but are actually very docile most of the time – and the males don’t have a stinger at all.  They get their name because they nest in hard wood, so keep going with the log piles if you can.

Close by was a Buddleia, and as I mentioned last week, you can make this flower later if you cut it back in June or July.  It was alive this week with hummingbird hawk moths, laying down vital fat stores for their over-wintering. They were flitting between the Abelia and the Buddleia with all the hysterical excitement of new contestants on Strictly.

You can make a buddleia flower later to keep the butterflies and overflies happy well into autumn – who knew!

5. Arbutus unedo. Queen bumblebees also hibernate in winter like hedgehogs, and their favourite habitat in my garden this week were the pretty bell-like flowers of the tree Arbutus unedo.  

The bumblebees are all over the Arbutus unedo tree gathering pollen and nectar for winter

6. Single or semi-double flowers. These are always an appealing smorgasbord to many insects and the wet summer has meant that roses, clematis etc. have kept going for longer than usual – at least they have in my neck of the woods.  Rose ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ or ‘Simple Peach’ (see Louise’s piece about this beauty), Clematis ‘Princess Diana’ and the zinnias are still attracting a lot of buzzing, fluttering, hopping attention.

A happy grasshopper on the open centre of a zinnia bloom……

7. Stag’s horn sumach. In butterfly-land, the clouds of Red Admirals we saw earlier in the summer have been replaced by Peacocks on the Hyelotelephium (sedum), and Speckled Wood butterflies on the stag’s horn sumach tree (Rhus typhina) which is laden with dark pink flowers before its psychedelic Autumn swansong.

Less gaudy than many butterflies, but still a beaut – a Speckled Wood on the late-flowering stag’s horn sumach (Rhus typhina)


Honestly, ‘Caroline’s increasing competence’… so annoying when you think Laura asked me for cuttings to replace plants that died under her watch last winter.

And I was the one actually taking notes at Great Dixter where we learned how much our gardens (which have the combined size of Suffolk) can contribute to the overall UK wildlife ecosystem. Makes you want to try even harder doesn’t it…

8. Cosmos –If my sisters had been as thorough as you and me with their dead-heading (unlikely) this would have been their first choice too. Still going gangbusters for you? Me too. And have you spotted any that haven’t had a proboscis stuck in them from July until…well, now and counting.  Their lovely open flower heads offer not only nosh but a perfect day-bed for insects which, presumably getting a bit weary by now, appear in need of that heavenly post-prandial nap. 

Extending the life of my cosmos (by deadheading like a pro) I know I’m helping dodderers like this one which nodded off through its lunch. We have much in common…

9. Rudbeckia – Laura thinks insects enjoy something fresh to savour at this time of year. A new menu if you will. Well this is the business. These Autumn flowers are a great colour to attract bees (they like yellow apparently); a solid flower head and are very plucky in the teeth of the worst Autumn gales. 

It’s a 10 from me (yey, it’s back on!)

Rudbeckia – such a good colour and a nice Autumn menu-refresh for the insects

10. Mahonia ‘Cabaret’ – I know the popular Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’ is one of very few pollen and nectar sources on offer in February so I combed the J Parker catalogue for one for my new garden. Uh-oh, on the way I fell in love with the orange buds of Mahonia ‘Cabaret’. Massive dilemma – M. ‘Cabaret’ flowers in late Autumn, not early Spring.

You’d be proud of me. Putting the needs of wildlife first, I ordered both and resolved to make good the family budget by foregoing a bottle or two of Merlot at the weekend.  Only kidding, I cancelled my gym class instead.

The3Growbags rarely pass anything that’s orange without a sigh of happiness -it’s a favourite colour – so this Mahonia ‘Caberet’ was a real draw when I was supposed to be shopping for the M. ‘Winter Sun’.

What’s keeping the insects happy in your garden this Autumn – and any good tips for late winter/early Spring?

Now to find out how much I took in at that wonderful Great Dixter ‘Soundscapes’ event you can hear all about it in my review, where towards the end I think you’ll see that actually it was Laura who was the more embarrassing Growbag … ‘Sounds like, Great Dixter

Whether fuchsias are your thing or not, this one is an absolutely cut above and its Louise’s Great Plant this Month. Just click on the image to find out more…

We have 10% off EVERYTHING in the gift section of our shop this week! some lovely presents for gardeners…

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By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

12 replies on “10 perfect autumn plants for insects”

I would 100% agree with you on the clematis rhederiana but wish someone had told me about its vigour before I bought it. It is an absolute beast of a plant and covers a whole trellis, nearly blocking a path and smothering all around it. I cut it back hard every year and it romps away. It is, however, right now covered in flowers which smell lovely and you can hear the bees before you see them. Also still seeing bees all over the dahlias, particularly Verrone’s Obsidian and Pooh.

Hello Rosemary, yes the Clematis rehderiana is an absolute monster, we’ve trained ours over the oil tank where it does a good job of camouflaging the ghastly plastic. Thanks for the dahlia recommendations – I’ve googled them and Verrone’s Obsidian looks absolutely amazing and is going straight on the shopping list for next year. Pooh is a bit bright for my reserved tastes but I know Caroline would love it! Thanks for getting in touch and happy gardening, best wishes Laura

Hello Janet, yes I’ve admired this sultry coloured salvia for so long in other people’s garden that I think I’ll have to get one. They seem to be absolute bee magnets too! Thanks for the reminder about what a great plant this is. I bought a new salvia just the other day from Tom Hart-Dyke’s World Garden. He had bred it himself and named it ‘Dad’s Brown Trousers’ because that’s what the colour reminded him of! Best wishes Laura

Kirengeshoma palmata
This is a wonderful late flowering herbaceous perennial suitable for a partially shaded spot. This Japanese plant with the dark stems has attractive palm shaped leaves and bears primrose yellow flowers in the autumn, grows to abut three feet (1 meter) tall.

That is a terrific suggestion, Bill. I’ve admired these plants hugely in other peoples’ gardens over the years – the yellow flowers are so striking, appearing as they do in autumn and lighting up shadier spots. I can’t grow one in my very chalky soil here in Eastbourne, though, so I’ll have be content with ogling them from afar! All the best, Elaine

Just in case there are people who are unaware of the aconite’s poisonous properties, please include this in any further mention of it!

I agree, I always make sure I wear gloves when touching mine and have warned my husband about it. It’s a great plant, very striking and in full flower right now in my Edinburgh garden.

Thanks for the reminder Barbara – yes there isn’t a blue that’s quite a dramatic as an aconite is there! Very best wishes to you

What an insightful article! As a passionate gardener, I’m always looking for ways to support our insect friends, especially during the shifting seasons. One additional tip I’d like to share is to create a “bug hotel” in your garden. You can easily build one with some old wood, bamboo canes, and plant stems. These little structures provide shelter and nesting spots for insects during the colder months, making your garden a true haven for them.


Thank you for writing in, Matt. Glad you liked our article – it always means a lot to us when people make the effort to correspond. And thank you for the reminder about bug hotels which are such a brilliant way of supporting our insect life. They really don’t have to be fancy – I made a very simple one with my small grandchildren last summer – we all loved doing it, and they were thrilled when insects started appearing on it within days! All the best, Elaine

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