Thursday, April 29, 2010

Five Best Plants to Attract Wildlife

Never thought of your garden as a wildlife preserve?  Well, it may be time.  The statistics about human impact on nature are grim.  Consider a few: America grows by 8640 people per day, and we sprawl across an additional two million acres per year (the size of Yellowstone Park).  The total paved surface of the country is the size of Missouri, and our non-paved surfaces are mostly lawn and sterile plantings.  What's left of our woodlots and forests are invaded with 3400 species of alien plants like bittersweet, honeysuckle and privet that have consumed 100 million acres of land (the size of Texas).  In the lower 48 states, humans have converted 54% of the total land into cities and suburbs, and 41% into various forms of agriculture.  That's an astounding 95% of total land dedicated to man-made use.*

Nature no longer happens somewhere else. Gardeners represent the last best chance to reclaim some of our lost biodiversity.  Our local animals need native plants--preferably lots of them in contiguous and connected areas--to survive and reproduce.  While I love many Asian or European ornamentals, they support only a tiny fraction of the wildlife that natives do.  For example, a Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) supports no insect herbivores while our native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) supports 117 different species of moths and butterflies.

So what should you plant?  Turns out, not all native species are equal.  Some plants sustain much more diversity than others.  University of Delaware professor Douglas Tallamy has studied eastern native plants and documented the different species they host.  Check out this list of five SUPERPLANTS that support wildlife. 

1. Oak Trees (Quercus)
Oak trees top the list for the total number of species they host.  They support an astounding 534 species of butterflies and moths, nearly five time the amount of a Beech tree.  In addition, their acorns provide an abundant food source for small mammals and birds.  Oaks have been diminishing in forests as a result of fire suppression, all the more reason to add one to your yard.  Plus, oaks are a beautiful and elegant, providing shade in the summer and allowing light in the winter (great for energy efficiency).  Try an underused oak like the stunning Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea) for fall color, or the Nuttall Oak (Quercus nuttalli) for vigor and ease of transplant. 

2.  Goldenrods (Solidago)

Goldenrods support the highest number of moths and butterflies of any herbaceous species in the study, a whopping 115 different species.  They are also an important nectar source for native bees and insect pollinators.  Wait, don't Goldenrods cause hay fever?  No.  It gets blamed for it because it blooms at the same time as Ragweed.  Most goldenrod species are drought tolerant, low maintenance, and have a long season of bloom.  Try a Goldenrod cultivar like 'Fireworks'  or 'Little Lemon' for a late summer show.

3.  Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) image from

Black cherries are rare in the nursery trade, mostly because they are considered a weed for so many years.  But Black Cherries are among the most ecologically productive plants in the U.S., supporting an astounding 456 different species of moths and butterflies.  This tree is a veritable food court for wildlife: their beautiful white blooms in April provide nectar for bees and other pollinating insects, their fruit provides food for birds and small mammals, and their trunks are favorite foraging ground for woodpeckers.  Plant Black Cherries along the border of your property, preferably contiguous with other trees and shrubs to maximize the wildlife impact.  If you can't find tree sizes in the nursery, don't fret.  Plant denser groups of smaller saplings for a lush and informal hedge row.  Here is a link where you can get seeds.

4.  Asters
Asters are second only to Goldenrods in terms of the number of moths and butterflies they support (112 different species!).  American asters are among the most colorful and showy of all native perennials.  Don't even bother with Asian varieties; the American natives are every bit as intense, drought tolerant, and easy to grow.  Plus, we are spoiled for choice.  The New England Aster (Aster novae angliae) are great for massing, the Wood Asters (Aster divaricatus & cordifolius) are good in the shade, and Smooth Aster (Aster laevis) are great for interplanting among grasses.  My personal favorite are the Aromatic Asters (Aster oblongifolius) like 'October Skies' (pictured) and 'Raydon's Favorite.'  Compact (18-24"), vigorous, and an explosion of mid-autumn color. 

5. Willows
One of the most under appreciated shrubs in America turns out to be one of the most ecologically beneficial ones.  Willows form large shrubs or small trees that stabilize streambanks, remove pollution from water, and provide food for as many as 455 different moths and butterflies.  Our colonial forbears used willows for baskets, building construction, and fencing, but  we've all but forgotten this amazing shrub.  It's not only practical, but beautiful.  Bluestem Nursery is the authority on the many different uses and varieties of willows.  Consider a willow for its steely blue leaf color, or for its outstanding stem color that rivals Red Stem Dogwoods.  Bluestem Nursery has catalogued just a few of the many uses for these plants. They're incredibly fast growing, too.  If you want an instant hedgerow, or a living fence (see picture) this is your plant.

(Statistics from Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens by Douglas W. Tallamy.)


  1. Just an interesting note: All of these have been used in herbal medicine. Willow bark is the original aspirin. By supporting naturally occurring plants, we are often giving ourselves a wonderful back up in case of emergency. I have also been amazed at the amount of plants that are considered weeds that are edible and often contain more nutrients than what is "normal" veggies. There is no reason to starve to death on a wonderfully weedy plot. -Rebecca

  2. Great article. I wonder about parts of this country (like Hawaii) wher native animals and plants are in such peril.

    I'm a transplanted Marylander, trying to establish appropriate native plants in my tiny California garden. This is a fascinating process. We have oaks, because the Western Scrub Jays cache the acorns in the soil, and then forget about 'em. I'm growing a lot of native plants, with insects and birds in mind.

  3. aloha

    and great post...i would assume like the post from above many of the local trees here in hawaii would be a great host to the various wildlife in peril especially up in the cloud forests preserves, there is alot more interests in preserving and maintaining these areas and growing alot of the ancient trees that used to live in these areas.

  4. Fantastic post! Very informative! One of my goals as a gardener is to be a wildlife preserve. Great info!

  5. Yes, that's a great book, and these are great plants. The more we can plant wildlife-useful gardens, the better.

  6. Hi, nice blog you have here. Nice that you mentioned willows, they are such a wonderful plant. I wrote a post on living willow structures a few months back you might find interesting

  7. Nice blog. Reading it makes me yearn for the weekend, to put on my gardening gloves and get out into the yard.

  8. So nice to see willow and goldenrod (one of my favorites) recognized as more than weeds!
    Nice article!

  9. Thank you for a wonderful perspective. I have linked this article on my fb page, so I hope lots of others will see it and enjoy it as I did.

  10. Hi, I'm very excited about the idea of a living fence. I was wondering if it is possible to use alder varieties in addition to willows. It'd be great to have a nitrogen fixer. can they be shaped?

    Thank you,

  11. Viva la wildlife and untouched little patches of dirt thriving with life. Happy co-existing!


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