Avery standing next to a tall specimen of ironweed, Vernonia gigantea, a buzz with bees and butterflies.
By guest author Avery Bartlett-Golden
A few years ago, a plant by the front door that had been left in a pot to be planted later, got impatient and grew through the bottom of its container. The next year it was an eight-foot plant with giant lacy flowers towering above us. That plant turned out to be Eupatorium fistulosum or Joe Pye weed, number 26 on the list of plants that I received from a class on herbaceous perennials taught by Dr. Dennis Werner at North Carolina State University.
This year a new plant appeared in the side flower garden. Towering above everything around it except for the apple trees, this plant seemingly came out of nowhere. I don’t remember planting it or seeing it before, but when I checked the class list of plants I received, there it was at number 63, Vernonia gigantea or Giant Iron weed.
This spectacular plant grows 8-10 feet tall crowned by purple magenta flowers that attract all kinds of pollinators. Later in the fall, the flowers will turn to fuzzy seed heads attracting birds and creating wonderful winter interest. As member of the Aster family this giant shares the family characteristics of blooming late in summer and displays similarly shaped flowers.
Close up of the giant ironweed flowers with one of the numerous butterflies attracted to the plant.
Iron weed is a native to the entire east coast and was first collected in Maryland by English botanist William Vernon in 1698. Later the Genus Vernonia was named in his honor encompassing twenty other native ironweed varieties and hundreds more on other continents.
Since it flowers later, giant ironweed is an excellent option for pollinator gardens to provide nectar for bees and butterflies at a time when few other plants are blooming. The ironweed plant lives up to its name surviving to the end of the season without issue. Certainly the plant is not picky about soil or water, handling moderate drought and torrential rain wonderfully. Also, it tastes unpleasant to deer which explains how it has survived despite the daily visits of the neighborhood herd. So, if you’re looking for a plant that will give stature and awe to a garden from summer to the beginning of spring, Vernonia gigantea will stand to the call.
~Avery Bartlett-Golden is a Horticulture Science major at North Carolina State University.
Annette Bartlett-Golden paints a wide range of subjects from landscapes to animals and makes abstract works with paper. Using vibrant colors, she imparts a sense of immediacy, vivacity and optimism to her paintings and paper collages.