Thursday, January 8, 2015

Wildlife Shrubs

     Someone asked me about shrubs to plant that could provide food for birds. Obviously native shrubs provide better food sources than exotics, but which to choose from so many different species? Not only that, but when I think of providing bird food, I also know that almost all our terrestrial birds feed their young insects, especially caterpillars (Lepidoptera), so those that are caterpillar host plants would be the best to choose. Luckily I had already been collecting this type of info for my book and so I was able to throw this together. I plan to dedicate a whole section in my book to this topic, but here's a rough preview. These are some of my recommendations for native habitat shrubs with a little about each. There are so many more that I could have chosen, but these are the ones I think have the best overall wildlife value, are attractive, and not as difficult to find in the horticultural trade (though I would avoid any cultivars and stick the straight true native species). Sorry I didn't have the best photos for each (now I know I need them and will get them) and for the length of this post.

Buttonbush, sometimes called Honeyballs, in bloom with a Perplexing Bumblebee nectaring on it.
Buttonbush/Honeyballs Cephalanthus occidentalis   I’m aware of no better shrub for attracting various pollinators. It also hosts 19 species of Lepidoptera and various birds (24 species) will eat from the seed heads (and eat the caterpillars it hosts too). This shrub (5-12ft tall) has globular white flowers and blooms better in the sun. It is very tolerant of wet conditions, but can easily grow in regular garden soil and can take some pruning. Buttonbush also attracts numerous nighttime nectar-feeding insects, including moths, as well as occasional hummingbirds during the day.

Silky (Swamp) Dogwood with a couple of pollinators.
Dogwoods Cornus spp. This genus, which contains many tree species, is known to host about 118 species of Lepidoptera and over a dozen beetles. The drupes (fruits) are a vital food source for birds and some 98 species are known to eat them, as well as at least 16 mammal species. Although Flowering Dogwood (our state tree/flower and largest native member) is the best known, numerous other local species also provide great wildlife benefits. These include:

  • Alternate/Pagoda Dogwood (C. alternifolia) gets to 15 feet tall, tolerates some shade, and has  blue-black fruit. The only native dogwood that does not have opposite branching. 
  • Silky/Swamp Dogwood (C amomum) gets 6-10 feet tall and tolerates wet conditions where it is thicket-forming and can take some shade. 
  • Gray Dogwood (C. racemosa) gets to 15 feet, adaptable as to sun-shade, tolerates poor, compacted soils, but is not very common. 
  • Stiff/Swamp Dogwood (C. foemina) gets to 12 feet, liking light shade, moist soils, and has black fruit, but is also fairly uncommon. 

Black Haw Viburnum in bloom

Arrow-wood Viburnum with fruit

Maple-leaf Viburnum with fruit
Viburnums – 104 Lepidoptera species are known to utilize viburnums. At least 35 bird species are known to favor their berries, as well as several mammal species. Various pollinators visit the fairly showy flowers. Here are a few of the local species to choose from:

  • Maple-leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) The most shade tolerant member of the group and shortest in stature. It is normally 3-6 feet tall with batches of dark blue berries that may persist well into winter. Not very tolerant of salt or pollution.
  • Arrowwood (V. dentatum) Does best in sunnier locations where it will produce abundant blooms (but is not very drought tolerant) and get to about 12 feet in height. Bluish/black fruit are better liked than other viburnums as forage.
  • Black Haw (V. prunifolium) 8-15 feet tall normally and often noted for its red fall foliage. It produces good displays of white flowers (especially in the sun) which then yield edible berries. It is fairly drought and wet tolerant, but not of compact or salty soil conditions.
  • Possum Haw/Witherod/Wild Raisin (V. nudum) 6-12 feet tall and preferring more sun than shade. Beware that many plants are also called "possum haws." Holds its leaves well into winter, particular in the South where it is semi-evergreen. The clusters of whitish blooms turn into berries that change multiple colors before ending up bluish black. It blooms best with more sun and likes moist situations. The acidic fruits are edible.

Allegheny Serviceberry in bloom
Shadbush/Serviceberry/Juneberry  Amelanchier spp. The genus (with numerous common names and some tree species) is known to host 124 species of Lepidoptera and at least 40 bird species eat the fruit, as well as countless mammals (including people like me). The white flowers are beautiful for a brief period of time in early spring and supply much needed nectar sources at this bleak time of year. They will tolerate some shade and act as understory shrubs, but produce more flowers/fruits with sun. They are a superb wildlife plant as well as being edible landscaping. They are susceptible to cedar-apple rust. Here are just a few of the local species to choose from:

  • Running/Dwarf/Thicket Serviceberry (A. spicata sometimes listed as stolonifera) The shortest and rarest member. It only grows to 6 feet tall but spreads slowly providing a nice hedge effect. It produces abundant and fairly large berries which are delectable! It can also tolerate drier conditions than any of the other Shadblows I’m aware of.
  • Allegheny/Smooth Serviceberry (A. laevis) This “Sarvisberry” prefers moist but well-drained soil and is probably the most common found in the wild locally. The fruits are tasty and the shrub can get to 25 or so feet.
  • Downy/Canada Serviceberry (A. arborea) This is our tallest Shadbush, sometimes getting to 40 feet, but is normally much shorter. Although all Amelanchiers can sucker, this one does so the most. Its fruits are the least tasty of the group. It is also the least tolerant of dry conditions. 

Washington Hawthorn with haws and showing its thorns
Hawthorns Crataegus spp. A confusing group as far as sorting out species. Both Washington (Crataegus phaenopyrum) and Cockspur Hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli) are some of the better known natives. More than 39 bird species have been seen eating the fruits (botanically pomes, but called "haws" colloquially), even more eat the more than 168 Lepidoptera species that feed on this genus as caterpillars. The thorny growth provides excellent nest sites and discourages deer browsing also. Can get to over 35 feet tall, but normally are much shorter, very slow growing, like full sun and are drought tolerant once established. Often planted for their spring flowers, long-lasting fruits, and as a living hedge/barrier.

Spicebush with fruit
SpicebushLindera benzoin  Not only a caterpillar host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail and 10 other species of Lepidoptera, but its berries are also a favorite food source for migrating birds (17 species noted). It is shade tolerant and very deer resistant. You need both male and female plants to produce berries. 6-12 feet tall normally and has been used for making tea and flavoring other food/drink.

Elderberry cluster
Elderberry Sambucus canadensis  This genus is known to host 42 species of Lepidoptera and several other insects. Some 120 bird species have been noted feeding on its fruits (and on the numerous insects feeding on the foliage or visiting the flowers). The broken stems provide homes for mason and Ceratina bees at times also. It can get to 8 feet tall and prefers moist conditions and some sun. It will form clumps. The fruit is edible after some preparation and it has been used to make wine. The easy-to-hollow stems have also been used to make musical instruments, pea-shooters, and even blowguns once completely dry (but are slightly toxic if not dried).

Sumac fruit cluster
Sumacs Rhus spp.  98 different bird species have been seen eating the fruits and even more birds feeding on the 58 or so Lepidoptera species that use this genus as caterpillar host plants. Only female plants produce fruit, but Sumacs can spread by suckering, forming dense colonies (thus limiting their use in manicured landscape situations). They have excellent, blazing fall color. Sumacs do better with sun and can be quite drought tolerant once established. Although not considered a great nectar source for butterflies, I recall participating in a large butterfly count during a drought where the only reliable nectar sources were sumacs that were covered in butterflies. Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix or Rhus vernix) is a wetland/bog plant and rather rare in our region. Here are the native sumacs to consider:

  • Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica) The shortest of the batch, 3-6 feet tall typically, it can handle very hot and poor soils. It is “fragrant” in that its crushed leaves do not have a good odor and is actually rather rare locally in the wild.
  • Winged/Shining Sumac (R. copallinum) 5-8 feet tall typically and with distinctive “winged” foliage. Spreads slower than most sumacs (excepting perhaps Fragrant).
  • Smooth Sumac (R. glabra) 8-16 feet tall and without the “hairy” look of Staghorn. It is the         fastest spreading and may not be suitable for garden settings.
  • Staghorn Sumac (R. typhina) The largest sumac, getting to 20 feet on occasion. The “hairy” or velvet appearance gives it its name and adds something to its fall look in addition to the scarlet foliage. 

Red Chokeberry with fruit from my front yard
Chokeberries (Red, Black) Aronia  arbutifolia and A. melanocarpa respectively (formerly in the genus Photinia). Beautiful white flowers and long-lasting fruit make these a favorite for landscapes, especially in the sun. The fruit are not preferred food sources but are a “starvation food” readily consumed in late February or March by desperate birds, but still have some 21 species eating them. Plants tolerate most soil conditions including compaction, some salt, some flooding, and even pruning. Black Chokeberry is shorter (to 6 feet or so). Red gets to 10 feet sometimes. Both have been used to make juice and host 6 species of Lepidoptera.


  1. Alonso, thank you for this write-up! You are a treasure!

  2. Alonso, thank you for this write-up! You are a treasure!

  3. You are too kind. This material is actually being modified for inclusion in my book and with other info for use in the Growing Native campaign.