Fall-blooming roadside perennial plants are great for pollinators!

Published 11:57 am Sunday, November 7, 2021

By Patricia R. Drackett
Director, The Crosby Arboretum, Mississippi State University
Assistant Extension Professor of Landscape Architecture

I’m sure you have heard the phrase, “the best things in life are free”. Well, I found one of those things this week along the north side of Highway 43 South, halfway between Picayune and Kiln – namely, a huge stand of blooming wild Ageratum. This purple native perennial is also called blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) and it is in the Aster family. Mistflower blooms in late summer into the fall along area roadsides. The plant can spread quickly in moist soils and is usually found growing in full sun. When it occurs in a solid mass such as this one, which measured about 600 square feet (around three parking spaces), it’s impossible to resist making a U-turn and parking the car to get closer to appreciate the view.

This nectar-rich purple carpet was humming with activity, and it was delightful to stand among hundreds of hard-working honeybees and dancing butterflies – common buckeyes, yellow sulphurs, monarchs, skippers, and more. It’s certainly the season for migrating monarch butterflies, and for butterflies in general. Add Ageratum to your own pollinator garden and sit ack and enjoy the show.

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Wild Ageratum is one of the perennials we display in our Pollinator Garden, a visitor destination located next to the greenhouse and propagation area. The raised display beds were built and dedicated in 2001 as “The Explorers’ Garden”, and they were designed to showcase flowering native plant species to visitors, examples for how the plants can be used in home gardens.

Over the years, the garden area expanded, and today it is a diverse collection of plants. While there is a strong focus on Mississippi native species, the garden includes ornamental plants attractive to butterflies and pollinating insects, such as parsley, fennel, or dill, butterfly host plants (meaning, they provide food for caterpillars), and nectar-rich exotic species such as Salvia, Pentas and African Blue Basil.

Some plants in the garden have “volunteered” from other parts of the site, for example, St. John’s Wort, or Asters.  Other species have been transplanted from Arboretum exhibits, such as Liatris or Stokes Aster.  Some garden plants here are used for “stock” purposes, and yield cuttings and seeds propagated for plant sales.

The garden has been supported through the years by contributions from Arboretum members and community businesses and organizations such as Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne at Stennis Space Center, who provided a community grant to build 400 sq ft of garden area in 2009 that was dedicated as the Children’s Butterfly Garden.  In 2015-2016 a group from the Partners for Pearl River County leadership class chose the garden as a community service project and conducted a major renovation.  Existing beds and soil were removed, the entire site regraded, and new raised beds were constructed by the Partners team, along with new soil and amendments.

In Fall 2017 the Pollinator Garden was certified as a Monarch Waystation through the sponsorship and participation of the Pearl River County Master Gardeners. Pearl River County Extension Agent Dr. Eddie Smith also recognized the Pearl River County Master Gardeners for their caretaking of the garden by nominating the group for the “Keep Mississippi Beautiful” Wildflower Trails of Mississippi Award, which they received in Spring 2021.

The Arboretum recently received a grant from the Coast Electric Power Association to make improvements to the Pollinator Garden. The grant is supported by the cooperative’s members and their Community Trust, in partnership with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. The funding will support educational programs on pollinator gardening, improvements to the watering system, installing new plants, and providing professional signage for the plants and insects commonly seen in the garden.

On Sunday, November 7 from 1:00 to 2:30 p.m., children will enjoy an “Introduction to Gardening Workshop” about pollinator gardens and plant propagation with Pearl River County Extension Agent Dr. Eddie Smith. Members’ children $2; non-member children $4. Limited to 12 children. Must be accompanied by parent or guardian (no charge for adults).

Join us for a 5K Trail Run on Saturday, Nov. 13, from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. and that afternoon, a modified 19th Annual Piney Woods Heritage Festival from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. See our website or Facebook page for more information on the botany field walk with state botanist Heather Sullivan on Saturday morning, November 20, and a Yoga program in the afternoon.

Several guided Forest Therapy sessions will take place in November and December with Nadine Phillips, INFTA-Certified Forest Therapy Guide in training, with the next being Saturday, November 21, 9:30 a.m. to noon. To sign up for programs, call 601-799-2311. The Arboretum is open Wednesday through Sunday and located in Picayune, I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road. Exit gates are closed at 4:30 p.m.