With our preoccupation with attracting backyard wildlife with supplemental foods such as suet and seeds, it is easy to overlook the fact that those backyards that often attract the greatest variety of numbers of backyard wildlife are also home to a variety of native plants. One of the most underappreciated plants that inhabit the yards of many of us is American mistletoe.
Whenever the subject of the mistletoe arises, more often than not one thing comes to mind; most people regard the plant as one of the treasured symbols of Christmas. Supposedly, if a couple passes through a door adorned with a sprig of mistletoe bearing berries, it is permissible for them to share a kiss. At the end of the kiss, the couple is supposed to remove one of the berries. However, it is out of place for a couple to steal a kiss beneath a berryless frond of mistletoe.
Although this popular legend has been around for centuries, few realize that mistletoe is also an important food plant for many forms of wildlife ranging from insects to birds and mammals. This very different side to the mistletoe should further endear the plant to everyone that shares an interest in wildlife. Let me explain.
This widespread parasitic plant is the host for the great purple hairstreak. This beauty is the only Georgia butterfly that lays its eggs on the mistletoe.
Mistletoe also produces both pollen and nectar that feed countless insects. Bees frequently avail themselves of the food offered by mistletoes. Ants, native bees, honeybees, flies, also visit the plant’s tiny flowers.
Mammals such as white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and eastern chipmunks eat mistletoe. Deer are particularly fond of the mistletoe’s protein-rich foliage.
Many species of birds eat mistletoe’s white almost translucent berries. Each berry contains two to three seeds that and enveloped in extremely sticky flesh. Among the birds that gobble up mistletoe berries are cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds, eastern meadowlarks, American robins, northern flickers, purple finches, blue jays, dark-eyed junco, white-breasted nuthatches, American goldfinches, and eastern towhees.
Now that you know that mistletoe is a valued wildlife food plant, are you willing to say mistletoe is far more than a magical Christmas plant? I am.
If you are looking for a plant that will add a touch of fall color to your yard, sassafras (Sassafras albidum) may be the perfect addition to your home landscape.
This native tree grows throughout the entire state. Typically, it reaches a height of around 20 feet. In the fall, the tree’s foliage ranges in color from scarlet and orange to gold. While all of the leaves are attractive, I personally prefer its scarlet-colored leaves.
In addition, every 2-3 years female trees also produce a crop of dark-blue, oval fruits (drupes) perched on showy scarlet pedestals.
If you look at a sassafras tree’s foliage, you will quickly notice that it is comprised of leaves shaped like mittens, eggs, as well as those displaying three lobes.
In addition, to providing a flash of fall color, this tree is also a source of food for wildlife. For example, it is a host plant for a number of butterflies and moths including the spicebush swallowtail as well as promethea and imperial moths.
For a brief time in the spring, the sassafras also supplies food for wild pollinators.
Mammals such as rabbits and squirrels consume sassafras fruits. The list of birds that dine on the fruits includes woodpeckers, eastern kingbirds, gray catbird, eastern kingbird, eastern phoebe, great crested flycatcher, mockingbird, and brown thrasher.
Indeed sassafras has a lot going for it; the tree is attractive, and provides for a wide range of wildlife. It does not get much better than that!
The plant that is currently putting on the most spectacular show in the Johnson’s backyard is a pass-along plant known as swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolia). As is the case with many of the pass-along plants growing in our yard, it is not a plant my wife and I had on our list of plants that we wanted to incorporate into our backyard landscape. However, now that it has established itself, we are glad that it is a member of our plant community.
This Georgia native is extremely hardy. The woman that gave me the plant simply pulled a handful plants up by their rhizomes and handed them to me. When I told her I did not have any way to keep them from drying out until I got home, she told me not to worry about it.
When I arrived home several hours later, I soaked the rhizomes in a bucket of water and placed them in the ground. Honestly, I did not think they had any chance of surviving. Much to our surprise, they did not die and now, several years later have expanded into a patch some 10-feet long.
Swamp sunflower is a perennial that reaches a height of 8-10′. This fall-bloomer produces a wealth of 2-3″ golden daisy like blooms.
One thing that has endeared it to us is the fact that, in addition of adding beauty to our yard, it feeds a wide range of wildlife. For example, swamp sunflower is a host plant for the gorgeous silvery checkerspot butterfly. In addition, it is an important source of a food for a wide range of pollinators, including honeybees and bumblebees. Although it is touted as a butterfly plant, we see far more bees and other pollinators visiting swamp sunflower’s showy yellow blossoms than butterflies. Despite the fact it has the reputation of providing monarchs with food on their fall migration, we have never seen a monarch on our plants.
Once frost ends swamp sunflower’s blooming season, its seeds are relished by waxwings and other birds that feed on seeds.
The plant requires little water and is relatively pest-free. The only thing that I do to the plants is remove their dead stalks in winter after birds have consumed all of its seeds.
Since it will spread via underground rhizomes, I suspect that sometime down the road, to keep the swamp sunflower patch from extending beyond the place we have designated for it, I am going to have to remove some of the underground rhizomes growing extending beyond the fringes of the stand.
This is one pass-along plant that might be a perfect fit for your yard. If it is, I hope a friend or neighbor will share it with you.
In our quest for native plants that are attractive and valuable to a variety of wildlife, we often overlook partridge pea. In fact, it may already be growing in an unmanicured spot in your yard.
In case you are unfamiliar with partridge pea, it is a native, annual legume that grows across the entire state of Georgia. Seven species of partridge pea grow in the Southeast.
Its attractive feathery leaves are dark green. The plant bears bright yellow flowers from May into September and beyond. After the flowers bloom, a crop of flat, pea like pods appears. Encased inside each pod are 4-20 black seeds.
Since the hard seeds persist into spring, they are a source of seeds for northern bobwhites, turkeys, songbirds, and even small mammals. One reason the seeds are so valuable is that they provide wildlife with a source of food throughout the winter, a time when seeds are often scarce.
Unfortunately, we often overlook the fact that the plant is the larval host for moths and butterflies like the io moth, gray hairstreak, cloudless sulphur, and sleepy orange.
Partridge pea also draws a host of nectar feeding insects. It is interesting to note that this hardy native’s blossoms produce pollen but not nectar. Nectar is generated in what botanists call extrafloral nectaries located at the base of its leaves.
Many pollinators are attracted to the partridge pea. It is especially important to the honeybees. In fact, beekeepers often plant partridge pea near their hives. Other insects that dine at partridge pea include a variety of native bees and wasps, ants, and even the so-called velvet ant, which is actually a wingless wasp.
It is unlikely you are going to find partridge pea plants at a nursery at this time of the year. However, if you take a walk about your yard, you just might find partridge pea plants living along the fringes of your yard. Since plant grows in a variety of soil types, you might find it in places where little else grows.
If you locate it, don’t cut it down. All you have to do help ensure that it will not disappear is leave it alone. With a little luck, it may reseed itself next spring.
If you cannot find any partridge pea plants growing in your yard, one way that you can get it started is to collect some seeds pods from plants growing along a highway. When the pods ripen, they will split open and release the seeds. Then scatter the seeds on the ground during the fall.
Keep in mind this plant will spread from where it was planted. Consequently, carefully choose the places you want to try to establish it.
Years ago, I learned that one of the best ways to attract a variety of birds to your yard is to provide them with a variety of wildlife foods. In an attempt to accomplish this goal, I now offer my feathered neighbors a variety of seeds, and suet, in addition to mix of seeds, fruits and berries produced on a number of native trees and shrubs growing about the yard. One of these shrubs is American beautyberry.
A northern mockingbird was the first bird that I saw feeding on the shrub’s bright purple berries. Since then I have kept track of the different species of birds that I have witnessed dining on these uniquely colored berries. Up until this year, the list included the gray catbird, house finch, northern cardinal and brown thrasher.
In the last few days, I have enjoyed watching cardinals hopscotching around the bird feeding area located in front of my home office my yard eating suet, sunflower seeds as well as the berries of an American beautyberry growing nearby. Meanwhile, brown thrashers have divided their time between eating suet, pieces of bread. and beautyberries.
Yesterday, I just happened to notice the bush’s foliage shaking. I stopped what I was doing and waited to see if a bird would appear. Much to my surprise, the bird causing the leaves to shudder was a female summer tanager. For several minutes, the bird moved about the bush eating a several beautyberries before moving on to the next cluster of bead-like berries. Then, just as quickly as she appeared, she flew away.
When she vanished into the foliage of a nearby oak tree, I had a new addition the list of birds I have personally seen feeding on American beautyberries in my yard. Better yet, I also now possess an unforgettable memory.
If you would like more information on American beautyberries, type American beautyberry in the Search bubble found on the right of the screen. When you press the return button, a number of former blogs dealing with beautyberries will appear.
With fall just days away, red berries by produced by plants such as Carolina moonseed, dogwood, and nandina are now beginning catch the eyes of bluebirds and other backyard favorites. Although birds are attracted to these brightly colored berries, we should discourage them from consuming the berries of the nandina plant.
This might come as a surprise to many of you since nandina has been planted as an exotic ornamental in North America since the early 1800s. The plant’s evergreen foliage and red berries that persist throughout the winter make is a favorite among home gardeners. The fact that birds also consume the berries seemed to make it an ideal addition to any yard.
However, in 2009 scientists with the University Of Georgia School Of Veterinary Medicine, Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study made a startling discovery. It seems that when birds consume too many of the berries they succumb to hydrogen cyanide poisoning.
This news sent shock waves across the wildlife community. Immediately a plant once touted as a great wildlife food plant fell from grace and wildlife experts began recommending that homeowners remove the plants from their yards. In spite of the warnings, nandina is still widely found across the state. Just this past week, I spotted a nandina laden with berries growing in the yard of an avid backyard wildlife enthusiast.
If you still have nandina growing in your yard, I suggest that you at least clip off the plants’ berries and dispose of them in the trash. This will prevent your backyard bird neighbors from succumbing to hydrogen cyanide poison. Better yet, follow up by removing the plants before the next growing season.
One of my favorite times of the year is when the mulberries begin to ripen on my backyard mulberry tree. While my wife and I enjoy eating the sweet juicy berries, what I enjoy even more is watching the parade of birds that flock to the devour every berry in sight.
Yesterday, my long wait for this special event ended when I noticed the tree is festooned with berries. Although most of the berries are not ripe, I have learned that the hungry birds begin devouring the berries well before they are fully ripe.
The birds that flock to mulberries are all card-carrying members of the bird world’s Who’s Who List. While I am not a usually a name-dropper, the list of a few of the birds that eat mulberries includes bird royalty such as the eastern bluebird, rose-breasted grosbeak, great crested flycatcher, scarlet and summer tanagers, wood thrush, red-eyed vireo, northern bobwhite and wild turkey.
One of the neatest things about the watching birds feeding in a mulberry tree is you are very likely to see multiple species of birds feeding at the same time. It is not impossible to a dozen more species of birds gorging on mulberries during a feeding orgy.
If you have a mulberry growing in your yard, you have probably witnessed the spring invasions of birds seeking mulberries. However, if your yard is not blessed with this magical tree, and is large (the tree can grow to a height of 60-70′ or more) enough to accommodate this fast-growing tree, plant one. While several introduced species of mulberries of mulberries grow in Georgia, the one you should buy is the red mulberry (Morus rubra) since it is the only mulberry native to Georgia.
This investment will pay dividends for decades to come.
Few people have made an acquaintance with the chokeberry. I am sure this is probably because this Georgia native often goes unnoticed unless people are looking for it. However, in the right garden setting, this shrub provide homeowners with a splash of color in spring and autumn, as well as a source of nectar for native pollinators and fruit for wildlife.
When trying to purchase chokeberry plants at a nursery, you might find red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), black chokeberry (A. melanocarpa), as well as a hybrid (A. prunifolia). Cultivars are also available, however, having had no experience with them, I cannot attest to their value to wildlife.
Chokeberries are deciduous shrubs that can attain heights ranging from 6-12 feet. In the spring, the plants produce 2-3-inch clusters of white blossoms. These blooms provide pollinators such as butterflies and bees with nectar at a time of the year when it is often extremely scarce. Retired teacher and conservation educator Betty Esco reports that on her property during early spring the chokeberry’s snow white blooms attract Henry’s elfins and falcate orangetips.
From midsummer into fall and winter chokeberry shrubs display their small astringent fruits. Birds such as cedar waxwings, chickadees, and even eastern meadowlarks eat these fruits. Small mammals will also dine on chokeberries.
I should also mention that chokeberries are not rated as a top wildlife food plant. However, this may be because it is rarely found in large enough numbers to provide large quantities of food.
Unfortunately, white-tailed deer will browse on the plant.
In autumn, the shrubs’ leaves are painted with lavender, red and orange hues.
The shrub will tolerate a wide range of soils even those that are extremely moist. However, as you might expect, they prefer damp, rich soils with a ph of 6.8.
Chokeberries will grow in moderate shade as well as direct sunlight. Although, if you are looking to maximize plant’s growth and fruit production, plant it a well-drained location that receives full sunlight and features slightly moist soil.
As is the case with many plants, these shrubs have their greatest impact when grown in mass plantings. Such stands can be achieved by setting out a small number of plants. This is due to chokeberry’s propensity for producing numerous shoots.
During the past few decades, goldenrod has become recognized as being much more than a weed. Its ascendancy to the list of valuable wildlife plants is much deserved. Gardeners and wildlife enthusiasts alike are becoming increasingly aware that the goldenrod is a source of nectar and/or pollen for a variety of native pollinators including native bees, moths, and butterflies. In addition, the insects found on goldenrod are an important source of food for songbirds and others. However, the ubiquitous plant’s value to wildlife well beyond its blooming season remains largely unappreciated.
In truth, if you allow goldenrod plants to remain standing throughout the winter, they will provide cover for songbirds, rabbits, and small mammals. In addition, goldenrod seeds are eaten by a number of birds and small mammals. The American goldfinch is particularly fond of goldenrod seeds. Among the other birds that dine on the tiny seeds are swamp sparrows, eastern towhees, pine siskins, and dark-eyed juncos. If you live in the mountains, don’t be surprised to see ruffed grouse eating goldenrod seeds on cold winter day.