Iron Maiden

Ironweed & bees in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Ironweed & company (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

Our native ironweed, Vernonia noveboracensis, is an extraordinary beauty with massive deep violet blooms atop stems that can reach over 5 feet tall; standing as proudly in your garden as she does in the local meadow.  Like Lady Liberty, vernonia carries her purple torches high to illuminate late summer gardens filled with golden rudbeckia and mauve eupatorium.  A member of the aster family, this gypsy roams the east coast from Massachusetts to Florida, spreading happiness to the local bees and butterflies along the way.  Because she can tolerate dry soils as easily as wet, ironweed is happy to settle in any area with enough sun and room to accommodate her spreading nature, but remains quite mannerly in a formal border setting as well.

New York Ironweed growing in a nearby pasture in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

New York Ironweed growing in a nearby pasture (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

New York Ironweed does not make her presence known until later in the season, usually starting to display her brilliant purple heads in August and continuing through September.  And that’s what makes this late arrival so spectacular; those dramatic dark violet-red clusters are a rare shade in the garden, and are guaranteed to provide a dazzling complement to other plants and shrubs in the fall landscape. The iron lady thrives in sunny locales from zones 4-9 and is a great multiplier if you plant her in an open field where she has permission to unwind.

Vernonia lettermannii in the garden border in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Vernonia lettermannii in the garden border (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Once Vernonia noveboracensis has displayed her last blossom, her cousin Vernonia lettermannii, also known as Letterman’s Ironweed (not after David) or Narrow leaf Ironweed, steps in to continue the passionate purple pageant for yet another month.  I grow Vernonia lettermannii ‘Iron Butterfly’ (also zone 4-9), which I fortunately discovered at a plant show a few years back.  Iron Butterfly offers the same vibrant flower clusters as Vernonia noveboracensis, but differs with a finely textured, needle-like foliage and a petite stature of about 3 feet tall.  Iron Butterfly’s delicate leaves start from the ground up, so even when not in bloom it’s foliage adds a feathery element that enhances larger leaved plants such as daisies or lambs ear.  And, like it’s relatives, Vernonia lettermannii also tolerates all sorts of soil conditions, from moist to dry.

** For more purple suggestions, try:  Purple Passion

A bee enjoys Iron Butterfly's nectar in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

A bee enjoys Iron Butterfly’s nectar (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

The genus Vernonia was discovered in Maryland by William Vernon, a 17th century botanist and entomologist that came to the United States on a four year hiatus in the late 1600’s.  With fellow plant collector, German physician David Krieg, they searched the state for plants, animals, fossils and shells.  Lucky for us, William stumbled upon this jewel~


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