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Ironweed: The pollinators’ friend

You probably saw it growing along the back roads in late summer/early fall. With its tall, dark red stems and clusters of small purplish-red flowers, ironweed (Vernonia spp.) is an eye-catching plant. The stems are strong and sturdy, and the plant is unusually difficult to dig up, hence the name ironweed. Depending on the species, ironweed can grow to be at least 6 feet tall.

Ironweed has lance- shaped alternate leaves. Each leaf has a distinctive white rib in the middle on the reverse side. The purplish-red flowers appear in loose, saucer-shaped clusters at the end of the stems. They’re at their peak from mid-summer through early fall. The flowers are followed by large numbers of seeds. In fact, a single plant can produce 6,000 to 19,000 seeds, which can remain viable in the soil for around 7 months.

In some states, including Kentucky and Ohio, ironweed is considered a troublesome weed, but here it’s valued as an energy source for pollinators. Ironweed is a very useful addition to the back of the perennial border. Plant it with milkweed, hollyhocks, goldenrod and sun flowers for an interesting combination of colors and textures. All of these plants support pollinators, too.

Ironweed prefers slightly acidic soil with plenty of organic matter and moisture. To prevent ironwood from becoming too tall, just cut it back by half in mid-spring and remember to mulch it with plenty of compost. Fertilizer isn’t necessary. In fact, it will make the plant weedy and weaken the stems.

Plant ironweed and, on a typical summer day, you’re likely to spot painted ladies, eastern tiger swallowtails, skippers and many other butterflies. Bumblebees, hummingbird moths and hummingbirds are also frequent visitors. As a bonus, ironweed isn’t a favorite of deer and rabbits.

It’s an easy native plant to introduce to your home garden. Plant and enjoy.

Cynthia Wood is a master gardener who writes two columns for The Farmville Herald. Her email address is cynthia.crewe23930@gmail.com.