Text by Tammie Painter
In addition to feeders and birdbaths, many gardeners use plants to attract birds to their yards. However, spreading a packet of mixed seeds that claims it grows bird-attracting blooms can introduce non-native species into your garden. While these plants may do well at first, they can become unattractive and weedy unless continually maintained. Many of these troublesome flowers spread easily, crowd out native plants and risk becoming invasive.
For a better option, look at native berry plants. These can do wonders for your pocketbook, your busy schedule and your area’s wildlife. They will draw birds to your garden without the headaches of the seed mix.
Benefits of Native Berries
The benefits of opting for native berry plants all stem from their natural adaptations to your region. While they are lower maintenance than some non-natives, this isn’t to say you can plant a native berry and ignore it. However, it won't need to be dug out and over-wintered in the garage, nor will it require daily watering in the summer.
Besides saving you work, native berries can save you money. Grown in the conditions and regions they’re suited to, care costs go down because you need less fertilizer, if any, to keep these plants thriving. Native berries are also naturally more resistant to your area’s diseases and pests, making them less likely to succumb to these problems. Finally, their adaptations mean they’re better able to handle their native habitats’ weather extremes, such as Southwest heat, Northwest rain and Midwest winters. This saves you money on replacing climate-damaged plants.
By making a place for native berries in your yard, you’re also supplying the natural food sources of the birds in your area in the form of the berries themselves, the nectar in the flowers and the insects that frequent these plants. Using native berries in your garden also replaces some of the native plant life lost to construction projects that often clear out natural bird habitat.
Native Berries for Birds
In the bird world, the main berry eaters are songbirds, including thrushes, waxwings, bluebirds, warblers, orioles, cardinals, towhees and more. Several of these birds, such as tanagers, eat insects for part of the year, then gobble up berries to gain weight before winter, making berries a vital part of their survival. Many berry shrubs also draw in nectar-loving hummingbirds when they flower, giving you an extra bird-watching opportunity.
Because numerous native berries grow throughout North America, the following list is not exhaustive, but it will get you started with a range of choices common to retail nurseries. Note: Although they’re not always tasty, the berries of the plants listed here are not poisonous to humans. Still, it is advisable to educate children to avoid eating fruit from unfamiliar plants.
Manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.) – Manzanita is the common name for numerous species of native evergreen shrubs whose habitats include temperate forests, mild coasts, frigid permafrost and open plains. Manzanita grows in any well-drained soil but prefers acidic conditions.
This is a highly variable group with forms ranging from low, sprawling mats to tall, upright shrubs. In spring, they bear clusters of bell-shape flowers that produce small fruits in late summer. Once established, manzanitas require little water.
Beautyberry (Callicarpaamericana) – The name says it all for this deciduous shrub. In spring, this native blooms with bundles of lilac flowers that produce clusters of bright purple berries throughout autumn. The show continues as beautyberry’s leaves change from light green to purplish-red in late fall to early winter.
Native to the Southeast, the plant tolerates only light freezes and the roots should be protected with a layer of mulch if the thermometer drops below freezing. Since beautyberry grows naturally in woodlands, it does best in moist, rich soil and partial shade.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.) – Serviceberry prefers cold or temperate regions with regular rainfall and tolerates freezing weather, making it a good choice for gardeners in the Northeast, Northwest and Alaska. In spring, these hardy shrubs produce drooping clusters of white or pink flowers. In summer, blueberry-like fruits decorate the plant. Although these deciduous shrubs can grow to 20 feet tall, their height can be limited with pruning or they can be shaped into a small tree.
Mahonia (Mahonia sp.) – With their glossy, spiny evergreen leaves, Mahonia bear a striking resemblance to holly. Several species in this genus are native to North America. Some, such as Oregon grape (M. aquifolium), thrive in moist, cool, shady conditions. Others, including desert mahonia (M. fremontii), make themselves at home in the Southwest's sunny and arid landscape. On most species, yellow flowers appear in late spring, followed by blue berries from late summer to early fall. Mahonia requires little care except for pruning to control its height and shape.
Chokecherry (Prunus virginianus) – Despite the unattractive name, chokecherries display dazzling red and yellow foliage each fall. In spring, the plant bursts with attractive white blooms that are replaced with dark red to black berries in the summer. This deciduous shrub is native to many areas of North America, except for the Southeast and Alaska. Due to its heat and drought tolerance, the plant performs especially well for gardeners in regions with hot, dry summers.
Currants (Ribes sp.) – If you enjoy currants, your birds may have competition each summer for these tart and juicy berries. While red-flowering currant (R. sanguineum) hails from the western regions of North America, golden currant (R. aureum) is native to much of the continent east of the Rockies. True to their names, golden currant bears yellow flowers and fruit and red-flowering currant produces pinkish-red flowers and bright red fruit. Both plants grow to about eight feet tall and should be kept out of intense afternoon sun. Once established, these shrubs tolerate drought.
Buffaloberry (Shepherdia sp.) – Its tolerance to cold and windy conditions and even drought makes this plant a top choice for bird-loving gardeners in the Midwest. Buffaloberry has a low, spreading form with branches covered in silvery leaves. Although its flowers aren't showy, the bright orange and red berries provide a brilliant display in midsummer. Since buffaloberries aren’t self-fertile, you will need a male plant nearby for the female plants to produce berries. Quality nurseries will label each plant with its sex.
• The Audubon Society website features a native plant finder for bird lovers. Simply enter your zip code then filter the results by the type of bird you’re hoping to attract.
• To discover which native plants, including berries, attract which birds, try out the Habitat Network’s interactive guide, "Which Birds, Which Plants?"
• The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s website boasts a wealth of native plant information and a native plant database.
• For an excellent national site that provides directories of native plant organizations and nurseries, plant lists, how-to tips, and a native gardening book list, visit PlantNative.
Tammie Painter is a writer based in the Pacific Northwest. This article appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Horticulture.
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