Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Wildflower Wednesday: Vernonia gigantea, A Rough and Tumble Wildflower


Vernonia gigantea is one of my favorite of the late summer rough and tumble wildflowers that make a home in the garden. They make gardening at this time of year a pleasure. Bees, butterflies, skippers, and various bee flies seek out the nectar and pollen. Deer do not browse it.

Ironweed is the common name for this beauty. It's a clump forming perennial with clusters of fluffy magenta-purple petaled flowers in the Asteraceae family. The flower heads consist of  9 to 30 disc flowers that sit atop stiff, upright stems with lance shaped leaves.  It's another native that doesn't mind wet feet and grows at Clay and Limestone despite the dry clay soil each summer. I do make sure it gets a good drink of water during especially droughty times. 

Vernonia is quite possibly the King of Pasture Weeds. In fact, the University of Tennessee has a fact sheet and refers to this leggy beauty as a troublesome weed. It seems that it's not tasty to cows and if it's growing in a pasture the cows must spend more time looking for grass and that means less grazing! Of course there's a term for this~~grazing inefficiency. Naturally they recommend using herbicides to eradicate it. Herbicides are a no-no in this garden. 

According to  that same article, Vernonia thrives in disturbed/empty places, which is why it shows up in pastures. My garden is quite crowded so over the years the clump has gotten smaller. I've decided to dig out the Rudbeckia maxima (moving it to a container) and plant the ironweed in it's place.

Vernonia is too ecologically valuable to allow it to languish.

I  have a special place in my heart for wild and rough looking beauties like Vernonia.

Pasture weeds are spectacular and I adore them. Goldenrod, Callirhoe involucrata, common evening primrose, Tradescantia ohiensis, violets, Eupatorium capillifolium and Salvia lyrata are also on the weed list. They're all rough and tumble wildflowers favorites at Clay and Limestone.

   Just take a drive down a country road and you can see our star in an pasture or in the roadside ditch. If you live near a meadow or prairie it's sure to be thriving there.


The birds planted it in my garden. Thank you goldfinches and song sparrows for collecting the rust colored seeds and dropping them in my garden! Dear reader, you might consider planting it to attract pollinators because it is a fantastic late-season nectar source. Leave the stalks standing all winter to feed the birds. The caterpillars of some moths feed on Ironweed species, including Grammia parthenice (Parthenice Tiger Moth), Perigea xanthioides (Red Groundling), and Papaipema cerussata (Ironweed Borer Moth). The larvae of some insect feeders are known to form galls on the buds and flowerheads of Vernonia species. (source)

I appreciate any plants that haven't had their best characteristics bred out of them.

When Vernonia blooms I know it will be doing the job nature intended it to do: make a lot of nectar and pollen and bloom for a long time, exactly when the critters need both.

The Particulars

Botanical name: Vernonia gigantea, scientific synonym is Vernonia altissima.

 Common Name: giant ironweed 

 Type: Herbaceous perennial 

Family: Asteraceae 

Native Range: Eastern United States 

Zone: 5 to 8 

Height: 5.00 to 8.00 feet 

Spread: 3.00 to 6.00 feet 

Bloom Time: August to September 

Bloom Description: Rose purple/magenta

Sun: Full sun to part shade 

Water: Medium to wet 

Maintenance: Low 

Suggested Use: Naturalize, Rain Garden, back of the border with Cup plant, Oenothera biennis, and tall Rudbeckias

Flower: Showy, a wonderful purple that looks brilliant with yellow composites

Tolerate: Deer, Wet Soil

Ecology: is a larval host to the ironweed borer moth (Papaipema cerussata) and the red groundling moth (Perigea xanthioides). The small rust-colored seeds of ironweed attract finches and song sparrows.

Comments: Habitats include open woodlands, woodland borders, thickets, areas along woodland paths, swamps, riverbottom prairies, seeps and springs, pastures, and abandoned fields. It can be easily shaded out by tall trees.


So glad you stopped by to see the Wildflower Wednesday star! Wildflower Wednesday is about sharing wildflowers all over this great big beautiful world. It doesn't matter if we sometimes show the same plants, how they grow and thrive in your garden is what matters most. I hope you join the celebration...It's always the fourth Wednesday of the month!


Don't forget our Wildflower Wednesday monthly challenge! 

The first part of this challenge is to do something every month during 2023 and beyond that supports native wildflowers, pollinators, and the critters that visit and rely on our gardens. Activities that increase our knowledge of the natural world are equally as valuable. Helping others learn about nature is included. Golly gee whiz, there are so many things you can do. The second part of the challenge is to post about it somewhere: Your blog, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or even your neighborhood listserve. Wouldn't an article in the local paper be a coup for nature! Why post it? Because positive publicity is needed to educate our friends, neighbors and communities about how important even the smallest changes we make as gardeners can be for pollinators, birds, insects and mammals that live all around us. 

Why now?  My neighborhood is changing. Yours might be, too. Every day an older home along with many (if not all) of the mature oak, hickory, maple, Eastern cedar and hackberry trees that have been there for over 75 years are cut down. In place of the "bee lawns" composed of Claytonia, Salvia lyrata, Ruellia humilis, fleabane, Western Daisy, Violets, self-heal, clovers, and dandelions that grew so well in the shallow soil that sits on top of limestone bedrock are sodded non-native lawns that get daily watering, whether it rains or not. Gone are the lightening bugs. Gone are the ground dwelling/nesting native bees. Gone is the habitat for insects, spiders and other critters. Gone is plant diversity. Gone are trees that provided for hundreds of moths, butterflies and other insects. Gone are the nesting sites for woodpeckers, hummingbirds, Chickadees and other birds. It breaks my heart. We can't stop the multi-million dollar houses from going up, but, maybe we can make a lot of educational noise and help our new neighbors see the value in providing for critters.

A gardener can hope!

Here's an incomplete list of things you might consider doing or changing in your garden, but don't limit yourself to my list, make your own list or check out the internet for ideas.

Shrink your lawn and make your planting beds larger.

Plant your favorite native perennials and shrubs. Leave them standing after they've gone to seed to continue to provide for wildlife. What you plant in your yard makes a difference to wildlife. I garden for wildlife so every tree, shrub and plant is chosen with wildlife in mind.

Plant more natives and then consider planting even more. "A typical suburban landscape contains only 20-30% native plant species. Try reversing that trend in your own landscape by using 70-80% native species." (source)

Commit to never, ever, ever, ever using pesticides in the garden.

Stay away from native plant hybrids and cultivars that are double flowered. They are sterile and have no pollen or nectar for insects and no seeds for the birds. If possible plant “true open-pollinated native wildflowers”

If you want to garden for wildlife and pollinators, don't let lack of space stop you! Plant your favorite wildflowers in large containers. You just might have the prairie or woodland garden you've always wanted...in a pot!
Create a water feature. Provide water year round that is accessible to birds, bees and other critters.

Show some soil! Our native ground nesting bees nest in bare soil, so don't mulch every square inch of your garden. 

Get rid of the plastic weed barriers in your garden, it's not good for anything.

Invite bugs into your garden. Plant annuals that attract beneficial bugs.

Learn to tolerate damaged plants. Imperfection is the new perfect.

Don't be in a rush to clean up the fall garden. Leave plant stalks and seed heads standing all winter. Leave those fallen leaves or as many as you can tolerate! Insects over winter in the fallen and decaying leaves. Leave a layer of leaves as a soft landing material under trees for moths and butterflies to over winter. Many caterpillars drop to the ground from the trees in the fall.

Make a brush pile. Stack fallen brush, cut tree limbs, broken pots for ground beetles. Ground beetles are excellent at eating "bad bugs'. They're also good bird, toad and small critter food. 

Rethink what you consider a pest. Lots of good bugs eat aphids. Spiders are important predators and bird food!

Add nesting boxes for birds. 

Turn off your yard up-lighting, eave lights and porch lights after 11pm. This is important for nocturnal critters including mammals, snakes, insects, bats, birds (especially during migration). (Birdcast suggestions)

Plant shrubs and small trees that provide berries and nuts.

Keep a nature journal: Observe visitors to the water feature, make note of when they visit. Notice which flowers attract the most pollinators and which ones are just pretty faces. 

Join your state native plant society (Tennessee Native Plant Society)

Join WildOnes even if there's no local group. (Middle Tennessee WildOnes)

Support your local native plant sellers. (GroWild in middle Tennessee, Overhill Gardens in east Tennessee,  Resource Guide TN Native Plant Society)

Encourage your local garden clubs to offer native plant talks.

If your garden club has a plant sale encourage them to sell more native plants.

Get trained as a naturalist (Tennessee Naturalist Program, Almost every state has their own Master Naturalist training program)

Take an online course on tree, fungi and wildflower id.

Take a walk in your neighborhood and observe nature. To quote Joanna Brichetto in Sidewalk Nature "Look Around. Nature is here, is us, our driveways, our baseboards, parks, and parking lots."

Buy the best wildflower, butterfly and bird id books for your state.

Read nature books to your children and grandchildren. Buy them nature books.

Give nature books as baby shower gifts (Nature books for infants and toddlers)

Read! There are hundreds of books on gardening for wildlife, the environment, and rewilding our world. There are delightful blogs with wonderful and informative articles.

If you are already gardening with wildlife in mind then add a few signs that help educate your neighbors. (Xerces Society, Pollinator Partnership)

Set up an information station where neighbors can pick up brochures about your garden and other info. 

Get certified (National Wildlife Federation, check to see what your state offers)






Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson