Do you want to add a splash of vibrant color to your garden from spring till frost? Do you want to attract hummingbirds, butterflies and moths, and bees to boot? Then plants in the genus Phlox are for you!

There are many different species in the genus Phlox. Some hug the ground while others can be up to four or five feet tall, but they all feature clusters of attractive 5-petaled blossoms ranging from white to blue, lavender, purple, pink, and magenta. Some of them have a sweet scent. Their flowers last a long time, and you can easily extend the bloom time on the taller ones by deadheading. Almost all the plants in this genus are native to North America, and a number of them are native to the Northeast.

Phloxes span a range of bloom times and growing conditions, so there is a phlox for everyone. But why stop at one? By choosing your phloxes wisely, you can add color and benefit hummingbirds and other wildlife from early spring to the end of the growing season.

The Common Phloxes

Moss Phlox

Moss phlox (Phlox subulata). This is the low, spreading plant with needle-like leaves and flowers in many shades of white, pink, and purple that you often see growing in rock gardens and draping over walls as well as edging many garden beds. Moss phlox naturally occurs in sandy or rocky soils and is tolerant of many conditions. It makes a great ground cover with its dense foliage and gradually expanding size. It blooms early, providing an early season food source for hummingbirds and other nectar-seeking wildlife. It is shallow-rooted, and you can easily pull some up once it gets established to add to another spot in your garden.

Woodland Phlox

Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) is also called blue wood phlox, wild blue phlox, and wild sweet William among other names. You may sometimes see this phlox along woodland edges. It’s about 6 to 12 inches tall and a beautiful shade of sky blue. Being a woodland plant, it takes shade or part shade. It likes well-drained soil. Mine looks great mixed with pink wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) and yellow golden Alexander (Zizea aurea). It blooms early and lasts a surprisingly long time – a good month or more in my garden.

Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera). Creeping phlox is similar to woodland phlox in height and bloom time. Mine has a more violet hue to the flower, although both have variations. Also a woodland plant, it likes bright shade and is said to prefer rich, moist soil (although mine has done fine in average soil). Whereas woodland phlox reproduces by re-seeding itself, creeping phlox spreads through runners that create a continuous loose mat of plants. As such, it makes a handy ground cover. It blooms at about the same time as woodland phlox. The foliage of woodland phlox starts to look tired after the bloom period winds down, but creeping phlox stays green, also making it more useful as a ground cover.

Garden Phlox

Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), also often called summer phlox, starts up in midsummer as the latter name implies. It is quite a bit taller, ranging from about 2 to 5 feet. It likes sun and is happy with average moisture, making it a versatile garden plant. It combines well with other tall meadow plants like bee balm, black-eyed Susans, and purple coneflowers. It makes a great cut flower, but even if you don’t want to make bouquets, deadheading these can keep them blooming into late summer and even fall.

All of these popular phloxes have naturally occurring color and form variations but have also been bred to create even more. Some of them have contrasting “eyes” in the center, and you can even find the moss phlox with candy stripes. Keep in mind, though, that the straight (unaltered) species often has the most appeal and utility to birds and other wildlife.

Other Options. Other phloxes can sometimes be bought and may suit your conditions. Marsh phlox (Phlox glaberrima), as its name suggests, is happy in moist soil. It naturally occurs in wet prairies and open woods and will tolerate clay soil and sun or part sun. Meadow phlox (Phlox maculata) also tolerates moisture, as does Carolina phlox (Phlox carolina). Prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa) prefers dry, well-drained soil and has a somewhat different growth habit from others, with the stems tending to droop to create mounds of flowers about one to 2 feet tall.

Not Phlox. Every May and June, you may see a profusion of plants that look similar to garden phlox along roadsides and wood edges. They are 3-4 feet tall and come in an attractive range of colors similar to those of phloxes. These are almost always actually dame’s rockets, which is a European plant that was introduced as an ornamental by settlers. Although pretty, they are invasive and displace native plants. You can tell them from the native phloxes by the fact that their flowers have four petals. Phloxes have five petals.

You Can’t go Wrong with Phlox, Maybe

Phloxes are great plants but there still are still a few things to watch out for. Some are susceptible to powdery mildew and benefit from good air circulation (i.e., not crowding them too closely with other plants). Some reseed readily and you might end up with more than you want. For me, woodland phlox has re-seeded gradually to fill out an area nicely but not aggressively. It does pop up in my lawn near its garden bed, but that doesn’t bother me. I’ve heard some people complain that their garden phlox re-seeds profusely and they have to pull out extras every year or two. They must have better conditions for it than I do, because mine so far hasn’t done that. Anyway, they are not hard to pull up, and you can probably find takers for extras of such a pretty plant. Creeping phlox, as discussed, spreads out through runners on the ground and makes a nice ground cover. If you want a plant doesn’t go anywhere at all, this may not be for you, but it is also easy to pull if you end up with more than you want.

These cautions are all quite minor, so if you want to help out hummingbirds, butterflies and moths, and bees to boot, go for some phloxes!

Barbara Malt, Vice President of the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society and PA Master Naturalist, author and all photo credit