The Buzz

Trees for Wildlife - by Linnea West

                                                                                                                                            Bird photos by Jon Graham 

For the joy of a garden filled with birdsong, young fledglings, butterflies, bees, and year-round beauty, make native trees the backbone of your landscape.   Native trees have evolved as an integral part of the local food chain and are ideally suited to water and temperature fluctuations of the mid-south. Oaks and hickories, magnolias, pines, maples, birch and beech give us wind protection and welcoming shade, hold soil in place and provide food and nesting sites for birds, insects and mammals.

When selecting trees and shrubs, ponder this:
96% of all terrestrial birds depend on insects for food.  

This includes our backyard songbirds. Berries and seeds, no matter how abundant, are not enough. Birds require the dense protein and fat of caterpillars, mosquitoes, flies and other insects to reproduce, raise their young, and have the strength to migrate. Baby birds in the nest only eat juicy insect life. Their busy parents flying to and fro need substantive protein and fat, too!

The chickadees at your feeder this winter may consume bushels of sunflower seeds, but come summer, they will be searching for insect protein. Chickadees rear their young exclusively on caterpillars. How many caterpillars does it take to produce a nest of chickadees?….10,000 caterpillars to fledge a single clutch! Multiply this by all the chickadees, robins, bluebirds, cardinals, woodpeckers, finches, sparrows… and we see the need to provide nature’s host trees for the insect food of our beloved songbirds.

Let’s welcome birds by planting the natives they are hoping to find when choosing a home. They will reward us many times over with their beauty, song, and insatiable appetite for insects we consider pests.

Berries and fruit are relished as part of a bird’s diet – and no fruit is as nutritious and perfectly evolved to entice our songbirds as those on native shrubs and trees. Acorns, hickories, beechnuts and seeds from maples, birch, and pine are eagerly harvested by birds and mammals alike.  

Butterfly larvae and adults are also attracted by native trees. Consider that our native Oaks support 534 different butterfly and moth species, Black Cherry supports 456, Hickory 200, Birch 413, Willow 455….to name only a few.   

Combine these caterpillars and other insects, nuts, berries, seeds and fruit, along with nesting sites and you have a treasure trove for wildlife with even a small number of native trees.

There are many striking flowering specimens of large and small natives. Consider Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea) with its 12” long panicles of fragrant white blooms in spring, loved for its nectar by hummingbirds and bees; mature height and spread of 50’.  

Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) perfumes the air from April-June with lemon-scented white blossoms, followed by dark red seed follicles with bright red berries; 15 to 20’.  

Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) is a graceful, multi-stemmed understory tree with early spring white flowers followed by delicious (to birds and people alike) black berries, and red fall leaves – Could one ask for anything more?   

Other small to medium native trees include:
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) with large white bracts, ‘chocolate-drop’ flower buds, red berries, and red fall foliage.

PawPaw (Asimina triloba) – large obovate leaves and delicious yellow strawberry-banana fruit; larval host for the TN state butterfly, Zebra Swallowtail.  

Redbud (Cercis canadensis) – bright pink tiny pea-blossoms running along zig-zag twigs; seedpods provide food for birds and small mammals through the winter.  

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) – a multitude of tiny yellow blossoms heralding spring; larval host for the Spicebush Swallowtail.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) –fragrant early blooms; lobed leaves like mittens turning yellow, orange, and red in fall; blue berries relished by birds; the source of spicy sassafras tea.      

For an evergreen screen to replace invasive alien privet, look to: 
Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria) – Red berries contrast vividly with narrow, glossy evergreen leaves, amenable to pruning;
and Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) – rugged peeling red bark, fragrant dense needle-like foliage and blue berry-like cones favored by birds.  

These are but a sample of the abundant native trees to choose from for your own welcoming bird, butterfly and joy-filled garden.   

Suggested websites:
Cornell Lab Yard Map-Top Five Great Berries:
Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center:

Recommended reading: The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, 2014
Bringing Nature Home
by Doug Tallamy, 2007

Sources: Dirr App 2007; Native Trees of the Southeast, Kirkman, Brown, Leopold 2007; Eastern Trees Peterson Field Guides, Petrides, Wehr 1998; Bringing Nature Home, Tallamy 2007; The Living Landscape, Darke, Tallamy 2014; The American Woodland Garden, Darke 2002; Fall Color and Woodland Harvests, Bell, Lindsey1990  

Posted by Memphis Botanic Garden at 7:00 AM


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