A Step Beyond Plant Blindness

February 3, 2022

With an eye on the birds in our gardens and landscapes, being able to identify many types of native plants is useful. Knowing the plants’ names is essential whether you are a NH Certified Landscape Professional or an accomplished landscaper who hasn’t gone for that designation. Knowing the next step in conversing about the native plants we revere is important to share more knowledge and offer more suggestions about healthy lawns, gardens, and ecospheres in public gardens too.

The Audubon Society suggests, in an October 2021 Audubon magazine article by Carlyn Kranking, Editorial Fellow, ways to discuss and understand the importance of twenty common types of native plants. The most important part of this article, aside from the list of the twenty plants, is ,“With a little work and planning, you could be rewarded with an iridescent Ruby-throated Hummingbird drinking from tubular columbine, or a group of Cedar Waxwings nibbling on serviceberries.”

In summary, here are the plants suggested by the Audubon Society, and a quick overview of what each offers.

Oaks (Quercus spp.)
Recently the topic of Doug Tallamy’s newest book, we learn that Oak trees are at the center of biodiversity in our lawns and gardens. With nearly 600 types of caterpillars of butterflies and moths making their homes in oaks, these are the backbones of healthy ecospheres.

Pines (Pinus spp.)
Evergreens, offering year ’round canopy shelter for birds and animals avoiding prey, also offer bird food in the pinecone seeds.

Dogwoods (Cornus spp.)
Of botanical interest, because of the way the dogwoods take calcium from the ground, absorb through their leaves, and return the calcium as soil amendments when the tree drops the leaves, these trees offer the drupes as nourishing food for 35 species of birds.

Willows (Salix spp.)
With native varieties such as black willow (S. nigra) and pussy willows (S. discolor) you’ll see several types of birds feeding on the insects that these blossoms attract. Small nesting birds also use the catkins for nesting material.

Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.)
We’re familiar with the importance of this native variety for the Monarch population but consider what the milkweed can offer our bird population. Birds which eat insects will be attracted to these plants for the caterpillars living in them as well as, again, the milkweed silky material in the persistent pods being safe and healthy nesting material.

Coneflowers (Echinacea spp.)
With year ’round interest, coneflowers offer hummingbirds nectar and more than ten other species of birds, including goldfinches and cardinals, nourishing seeds in late fall and through the winter.

Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.)
Black-eyed Susans attract a multitude of butterflies and moths. You’ll find chickadees, nuthatches, and sparrows in feeding frenzies with these thickly seeded flower centers.

Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)
Perhaps one of the most familiar flower faces in our New Hampshire gardens, the sunflowers’ famous seeds are food for dozens of species of birds both large and small. Sunflowers left to feed birds offer interest and benefits to the migrating birds as well as those overwintering here.

Sages (Salvia spp.)
Audubon notes on the sage include a particularly fascinating aspect of pollination. Hummingbirds feeding on sage nectar stab the stamen releasing the sage’s pollen. Sticking to the bird’s head, hummingbirds help pollinate the next sage plant where they choose to feed.

Blazing Star (Liatris spp.)
The seeds in “gayfeather” are bird magnets, for the way they attract goldfinch, buntings, and chickadees as well as birds who prefer insects; liatris flowers with their long bloom times, host many insects and butterflies for the insectivors in the bird world.

Columbines (Aquilegia spp.)
A particular favorite of our hummingbirds, the shape of the columbine is ideal for a hummingbird’s long beak.

Goldenrods (Solidago spp.)
Insect larvae living on goldenrods offer a smorgasbord for several types of birds in our area and the seeds are beneficial to small songbirds.

Asters (Symphyotrichum spp.)
Since our native asters bloom in September and through autumn, they are extremely beneficial to fall migrating birds.

Beardtongue (Penstemon spp.)
Ground feeding songbirds are attracted to the native penstemon seeds.

Serviceberries (Amalanchier spp.)
One of the favorite nesting habitats for cardinals, tanagers, vireos, robins, and other birds, the Serviceberries are also excellent berries for birds because of their nutritional value. As a native, they are not as sweet and that means there’s more nutritional value for the birds feeding on them.

Elderberries (Sambucus spp.)
Gray Catbirds are among the many birds who will feed on the berries and make nests in this plant when it’s at a mature height. It’s interesting that raw elderberries are poisonous to us but favored by birds!

Blueberries and Sparkleberries (Vaccinium spp.)
Sparkleberries don’t grow in our area but are included in this family of plants as interesting for the many, many birds who feed on the berries. In our area, there are small songbirds who would nest in blueberry bushes, adding to the interest in an edible landscape.

Honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.)
There are many types sold in garden centers, so we need to watch for natives; trumpet honeysuckle (L. sempervirens) or yellow honeysuckle (L. flava). There are birds relishing the berries in fall and through winter and other birds feeding on nectar and seeds when they migrate early in fall.

Switchgrass (Panicum spp.)
For its seeds and vegetation, which provides shelter for small birds, switchgrass is a premier choice in our landscape plantings with the birds in mind.

Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia spp.)
Leave it standing for the delicate seed heads which are gorgeous with light frost on them and for the dead stems to be nesting material for small birds; those seed heads are beneficial food for sparrows and finches.

With these twenty types of plants you have additional information to share when you are considering the importance of helping our bird populations and understanding the ways birds are important for healthy landscapes. It’s important to keep considering the native plants in your designs and in the work you do with all types of clients, whether they are customers for mowing and snow blowing, or customers with gorgeous containers on decks and patios. The additional information about why the natives are important for bird habitat and healthy avian populations is important for us all to share as we work toward landscapes that keep “two thirds for the birds.” The 234birds Instagram site and website are further sources of information about the importance of birds in our ecosystems. Check those sources for more information to use and share.

Our local Audubon Society chapters in NH offer many online resources for landscape and bird connections as well as webinars and in-person birdwatching events. Make 2022 your year to add the birds to your library of professional development and gardening mindsets.

—by Cris Blackstone, NHCLP. — Cris is a member of Newmarket Conservation Commission; a Supervisor on Rockingham Conservation District; Board Member for NH Association of Conservation Commissions; and member of the Garden Communicators International Sustainability Committee.