Two days ago, a small flock of bluebirds visited our backyard. They spent a few minutes flitting around near the house, then headed straight for an old, berry-laden Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) growing by the creek. Today, with a blanket of snow blocking access to seeds and whatever else is available among the leaf litter, the red cedar’s berries are a valuable source of food form all manner of birds that visit our yard.
Since this is also the season of garden catalogs and seed-starting, the bluebirds got me to thinking whether or not there were more plants I could add to the landscape to feed birds over winter. Sweet summer fruits like blueberries and blackberries are gobbled up as soon as they are ripe, and often before that, so they are not available to birds in winter. Flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida) bear bright red fruit that is quickly consumed in fall by both birds and squirrels. The same is true of fruit borne by spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana): Birds relish the berries, and they are gone long before wintertime. The best winter food stays on the plant until there is little else that birds will eat. Staying on the plant is important, because that means the fruit is still visible and available even if the ground is covered with snow, as it is today.
I have a number of Eastern red cedars (J. virginiana) growing in the yard, including both the full-size trees and the low-growing cultivar ‘Grey Owl’, which is suitable for foundation plantings, shrub borders, and hedges in all manner of landscapes. Hackberries (Celtis occidentalis) are another favorite native tree that holds onto its fruit until hungry birds descend in late winter. While both self sow, and I do need to pull up seedlings regularly, I love them both because they play such a vital role in the landscape.
Our small meadow also provides valuable winter forage. We leave the meadow standing until early spring so that birds can harvest seeds. In addition, I occasionally spot woodpeckers drilling into stems to unearth overwintering insect larvae.
Here are some other plants that help feed birds and other wildlife in winter. The entries below are taken, in part, from my new book Chesapeake Gardening & Landscaping: The Essential Green Guide, available from Adkins Arboretum and the University of North Carolina Press.
Sumacs (Rhus spp.). Large shrubs or small trees, sumacs are plants for shrub borders and hedgerows, since they spread by root suckers to form clumps. Shining or winged sumac (R. copallinum, formerly R. copallina), from 7 to 15 feet tall and spreading to 20 feet, bears showy red, conelike clusters of berries. Sweet or smooth sumac (R. glabra) is similar but generally only reaches 15 feet tall and wide. Staghorn sumac (R. typhina) ranges from 15 to 25 feet tall, spreads to 30 feet, and bears red fall fruit. I also love these tough, tolerant natives because of their spectacular fall foliage. I have them growing on the hillside along the road, combined with a variety of other shrubs.
Bayberries (Morella spp., formerly Myrica spp.). The two native species listed here feature aromatic leaves and berries that are attractive to birds. Southern, small, or swamp bayberry (Morella caroliniensis, formerly Myrica caroliniensis and M. heterophylla) ranges from 8 to 12 feet tall and wide. Plants grow in sun to shade and wet to dry soil. Northern bayberry (Morella pensylvanica, formerly Myrica pensylvanica) ranges from 5 to 10 feet tall and wide. Plants are not reliably evergreen, but they tolerate dry to wet soil and can grow in tidal and non-tidal marshes and wetlands, either brackish or fresh. Both species spread by suckers and form thickets or colonies with time. I have quite a few pots of seed-grown bayberries, which I hope will be large enough to plant out in the garden this year. They also are available in nurseries.
American holly (Ilex opaca). This popular tree or large shrub is found in landscapes and woodlands throughout our area. American hollies feature glossy evergreen foliage and colorful berries that are attractive to birds and other wildlife. Give them full sun to partial shade with evenly moist, well-drained soil. Avoid dry soil conditions and windy sites. If American hollies are common in your area, you don’t need to worry about fruit production. If there aren’t many in your area, though, plant one male plant for every three females to achieve berry production.
Above: American holly (Ilex opaca)
Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is probably the best-known of the deciduous hollies. It is a handsome shrub that grows in average to wet soil and ranges from 6 to 10 feet tall and wide. Plants produce masses of showy red berries on female plants that often last well into winter. Plant one male per three females to ensure adequate pollination. Use winterberry holly for mass plantings, in shrub borders, and in wet areas.
Two other species should be high on your list as well, although their fruit is generally gone by fall: Both Southern Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) and gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) feature fruit that is high in fat, and thus especially valuable for birds for preparing for migration.