As we transition to winter weather, we start waiting – we wait for bluebirds to brighten our days. We wait for robins, the harbingers of spring, to return. What to do? Perhaps you should think about planting some trees or shrubs. The climate in the South is such that you can plant woody specimens all winter as long as the ground isn’t frozen solid. By planting during the dormant season, you can give woody plants an edge in developing a strong root system before the heat and drought of summer are upon us.
Before I talk about what species to plant, I am going to let you in on a little secret. The secret is “smaller is better.” What do I mean? I mean when it comes to planting woody nursery stock, smaller trees are less expensive, there is more diversity of plant material available, and over time the smaller trees catch up to the big balled-and-burlapped trees that require a crane or hoist to get them into the ground. As an added bonus, you don’t have to dig a gigantic hole, saving time and energy.
Case in point: In my yard I planted a containerized gray dogwood that was 5 feet tall. At the same time, I planted 2-foot-tall, single sprigs of rough-leaf dogwood, silky dogwood and pale dogwood. Guess what? After three years, they were all the same size, multiple-stemmed and producing berries for the birds. The other advantage is I saved a bundle of cash. Each yearling sprig cost a whopping $6 compared to the $50 spent on the large container specimen. So when your landscape plans call for woodies, think small.
Before I go into some detail about what are the best shrubs for birds, I should mention there are several species you should think carefully about before planting. These are species that often attract large numbers of birds, but they have become quite invasive and can harm natural environments. Furthermore, research has shown that even though the birds devour the berries of these plants, they do not get as much nutrition from them compared to consuming berries from native species.
One of the great things about using our native trees or shrubs to attract birds is that they are all quite beautiful when flowering. Commonly called downy serviceberry, serviceberry, sarvis berry or Juneberry, Amelanchier arborea trees are the very first showy flowering small trees in Southern forests. In a good year, the trees will be covered with hundreds to thousands of small half-inch-long, five-petaled flowers that make it look like snow on the hillside in late March or early April. The flowers, often looking as if they have twisted petals, occur in groups of three to 20 that will later form the clusters of berries relished by the birds. In June, the small three-eighths-inch dark bluish fruits will ripen, and if you are lucky, you can beat the cedar waxwings and robins from stripping the berries in less than a day.
The largest these trees will get is about 20 feet tall, with a trunk 6 inches in diameter. These small trees sucker easily from the roots and can be trimmed to form a tall shrub that will also provide a nesting habitat for cardinals, mockingbirds and other songbirds. This genus also has landscape potential because the leaves can turn brilliant red or crimson in the fall, and during the winter, the twigs often have a reddish cast.
Even professional botanists and horticulturists often confuse downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) with its cousin, Canada serviceberry (A. canadensis). The latter is a multi-stemmed shrub and I can only tell the difference in the spring when the downy serviceberries have a definite whitish down on the underside of their leaves. Otherwise, the plants look pretty much identical. However, I have noticed that berries on my Canada serviceberry ripen a week or so later than my downy serviceberry. This is a fairly fast-growing species and can be used in place of flowering dogwoods in the landscape. They are most prolific with ample fruit production in full sun but can also be grown in partial to almost complete shade. Other serviceberry species include apple serviceberry cultivars A. x grandiflora ‘Cumulus’, ‘Autumn Brilliance’ and ‘Princess Diana’ and the Allegheny serviceberry (A. laevis).
The second native woody for wildlife would be in the genus Cornus – the shrubby dogwoods. Every gardener is no doubt aware of our native flowering dogwood. It heralds the arrival of spring and when combined with redbud creates a lasting vision of spring woodland beauty that may be etched in our memories forever. While there is great concern about disease with the flowering dogwood, I will present you with the shrubby, fast-growing species of this group. I really like this group of plants because you can plant a 2- to 3-foot one-year-old seedling, and in three years, you will have a large 8-foot multi-stemmed, mature plant producing bluish-purple berries that birds go “ga-ga” over.
I have used these as foundation plants around the back of my house to hide ugly concrete. This group of plants is similar to serviceberry in that they have clusters of white flowers in the spring followed by berries in late summer and early fall. They also have great fall foliage ranging from bright yellow to scarlet. In winter, the young, tender stems can be either a dull yellow or bright red depending on the species.
The most common shrubby dogwood throughout the state is the rough-leaf dogwood (Cornus drummondii). As per the common name, this species has leaves that are rough to the touch because they are literally covered with thousands of hairs on both the upper and lower surface. This is one tough shrub and it can tolerate almost full shade to sun and will grow in a variety of soil types. The 3-inch-wide clusters of white flowers appear in May, and the berries are ripe by mid to late September and early October. The bluish-purple berries stand out against the brilliant red and orange leaves. Because more than 40 species of birds will consume the berries, they don’t last long. The other species of shrubby dogwood that I recommend are silky dogwood (C. amomum var. amomum), pale dogwood (C. amomum var. obliqua), gray dogwood (C. racemosa) and stiff dogwood (C. foemina). I have all these species in my yard, except the stiff dogwood, and they all have a slightly different flowering time that results in an elongated period when the berries are available to the birds.
This group of viburnums shows what wonderful landscape potential these plants have and how showy they can be.
Important group number three for birds is the genus Viburnum, also known as the haws. While there are numerous cultivated varieties out there to select from, our natives hold their own in every sense of the word. They are beautiful in the spring when covered with dozens of 3- to 5-inch clusters of white flowers until fall when the color ranges from dusty orange to a scarlet red, depending on the species. For those looking for a native wildlife food-producing plant for the shade, try the mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium). The remaining species can be grown in full sun to partial shade but flower and produce more berries when placed in full sun.
All are multi-stemmed and mature to a height of about 15 to 20 feet. The following species are native to the South: southern arrowwood (V. dentatum var. dentatum and V. dentatum var. lucidum), Kentucky viburnum (V. molle), possumhaw (V. nudum var. nudum), withe-rod (V. nudum var. cassinoides), blackhaw (V. prunifolium), downy arrowwood (V. rafinesquianum) and southern blackhaw (V. rufidulum). I can’t say enough about what excellent sources of food these are for birds, and much like the shrubby dogwoods, when the berries are ripe look out ‘cause here come da birds!!
One other group of small trees I usually include as outstanding plants that produce berries that birds relish (relish, get it?) is the hawthorn. We have a large number of species, and I love these because the robins and cedar waxwings flock by the dozens to the trees every December, and it takes them only two days to devour the fruit from about 20 different trees.
One last little tidbit of information about using natives to attract birds: Don’t believe everything you hear or read. Many people will tell you how good the winterberries, deciduous hollies and sumacs are for attracting birds. But I can tell you this, the reason some of these are such excellent landscape plants is because the red berries persist throughout the winter. Think about it.
(From Kentucky Gardener Volume III Issue II. Photos By Thomas G. Barnes.)