Wild Ideas: Native plants for wildlife

Native plants resources


USFWS Native Plant Center (nativeplantcenter.net): A searchable database, photos and loads of other information on native plants.

Va. Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries (dgif.virginia.gov): A list of plants for wildlife, instructions for creating a butterfly garden, information on habitat programs and a link to the downloadable guide “Habitat at Home.”

National Wildlife Federation (www.nwf.org): Information on the value of native plants, descriptions of them by geographic region and interesting factoids. Search on “native plants” on the site.

Books and Pamphlets

“A Field Guide to Eastern Forests: North America” (Peterson Field Guide) by John C. Kricher

“American Wildlife & Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits,” by Alexander C. Martin, Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson; available in several print editions, or view online for free at Google Books (books.google.com)

“Bringing Nature Home,” by Doug Tallamy

“Forest Plants of the Southeast and Their Wildlife Uses,” by James H. Miller and Karl V. Miller

Habitat at Home”; downloadable from the VDGIF website (dgif.virginia.gov) or call 804-367-1000

“Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards,” by Sara Stein

“Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping  –  Chesapeake Bay Watershed,” by USFWS; downloadable from nativeplantcenter.net, among other websites, or call 1-800-344-WILD

“The Wildlife Garden,” by Charlotte Seidenberg, with Jean Seidenberg

For more information about resources on the relationship between native plants and wildlife, go to nighthawkcommunications.net and click on the tab “Nature Resources,” then the link “Virginia Wildlife Habitat.” If you have a suggestion, please leave a comment on the website or contact me directly.

By mid-March, as I write this, spring is fully underway, about two weeks ahead of schedule because of the mild winter. Trees and shrubs are leafing out, early spring wildflowers, such Bloodroot, are blooming on the forest floor, birdsong fills the air at dawn and butterflies and bees are flying everywhere. If you’re planning habitat projects on your property, it’s time to get busy, and understanding the intricate relationship between plants and animals is critical in picking the right plants.

Some species of wildlife are obligated – depend on  –  one species of plant for food, reproduction, shelter, or all of these. Insects in particular may be highly specialized. The Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly, for example, lays its eggs only on our native Spicebush shrub, while Monarch Butterflies are obligated to milkweed species. Adult butterflies feed on the nectar of many plants, but some species have distinct preferences. Some plants benefit a wide variety of animals, such as Arrowwood Viburnum, which provides food to butterflies, songbirds and some mammals.

A Monarch Butterfly feeds on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), a one of several milkweed species native to Virginia.
Derek Ramsey via Wikimedia Commons
A Monarch Butterfly feeds on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), a one of several milkweed species native to Virginia.

To attract some insect-eating birds, you need to provide plants that attract insects. While adult hummingbirds zero in on the blossoms of Trumpet Honeysuckle during the bloom season, they feed their young on protein-rich insects. And while the Eastern Kingbird may mostly feed on insects, it also takes advantage of dogwood berries to supplement its diet.

Most wildlife species time their reproduction with the availability of plants that provide food directly or indirectly, since the lives of the two kingdoms are inextricably entwined. If insect-eating songbirds have babies before insects are out and about, for example, their young are at risk.

Timing is one of the many areas in which nonnative plants come up short. Since our wildlife has not co-evolved with them, they rarely provide the right nutrition at the right time and can overrun native plants that do. In reestablishing habitat, it’s important, therefore, to replace invasive nonnative plants with natives that offer wildlife better value.

Plants live in communities, and most wildlife have evolved to live in specific spatial niches. In designing habitat projects, “the best thing someone can do is look at the structure of habitat, the layering horizontally and vertically,” says Carol Heiser, education program section manager and habitat education coordinator with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Heiser wrote a great guide on the subject, “Habitat at Home,” which covers important concepts in designing habitat and includes lists of native plants and their uses to native Virginia wildlife. (See the sidebar.)

In traditional landscaping, nonnative species are primarily used, particularly cold-season grasses  –  and even those are cut to the ground regularly, creating a green desert all but devoid of wildlife value. Comparing these endless sterile lawns and “foundation” plantings of a few species of nonnative shrubs with a meadow filled with native warm-season grasses and native shrubs is like comparing an empty plate with a banquet table filled with food.

 “Because animals directly or indirectly depend on plants for their food,” entomologist Doug Tallamy writes in his book, “Bringing Nature Home,” “the diversity of animals in a particular habitat is closely linked to the diversity of plants in that habitat.” Tallamy explains why it’s important to have habitat everywhere, including suburban backyards, and focuses on insects, particularly pollinators. Not only are they critical to the production of almost all the plant products humans eat, they serve as prey for many other animals. Tallamy notes that 37 percent of animal species are plant-eating insects.

Some plants provide a range of wildlife food. Fruit-bearing shrubs, for example, offer blossoms for pollinators and those that prey on them, and fruit for insects, birds and mammals. When it comes to woody plants (trees and shrubs), oaks top the list for being preferred by butterflies and moths  –  supporting more than 500 species of these important pollinators as well as providing mast (acorns) for Wild Turkey, Black Bear and other animals.

An Eastern Kingbird dines on the fruit of a Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia).
Bruce Jones
An Eastern Kingbird dines on the fruit of a Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia).

Although deer are native wildlife, their populations have exploded and they now threaten the health of native-plant communities by over-consuming many vulnerable species as well as damaging landscaping, so many gardeners search for the holy grail of plants  –  plants that deer won’t eat. Some references listed in the sidebar, such a “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping  –  Chesapeake Bay Watershed,” indicate which plants are deer-resistant.

Whether your habitat project is small or large, a little research about wildlife and their habitat needs can go a long way to helping improve our native ecosystems. Beyond that, some trial and error and a willingness to adapt will help you meet your habitat goals.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 346 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

1 Comment

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