Tips for Finding and Growing Native Plants for Birds

native plants

Naturalist and TV personality David Mizejewski of the National Wildlife Federation has just released the second expanded edition of his practical book Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife. Below is an excerpt from the first chapter of the book, in which it discusses identifying, restoring, and purchasing native plants.

Identify the plants currently growing in your garden and neighborhood. Take photos and use online gardening sites, garden plant apps or gardening books, or take your photos to your local nursery to help identify yourself. You will be surprised to find that many plants used in landscapes are not native. Instead, they come from other parts of the world and were chosen because of their beauty or their functionality in the landscape. The ability to grow in poor soils, resist air pollution, provide ornamental flowers and foliage, and resist disease are plant characteristics that generally outweigh a plant’s value for wildlife when people choose plants for their gardens. Many common species that you have seen all your life are actually non-native species that have been introduced over the last century. The fact that you are used to seeing them and may mistake them for natural parts of the ecosystem does not change their negative impact on native plant and wildlife species.

Native Plant Restoration

Plants are the tools you will use to create your wildlife habitat garden and connect your property to the local ecosystem. Native wildlife species have evolved to depend on plants that are also native to their ecosystem.

Native plants are adapted to the range of seasonal conditions in their region. This means that they evolved to thrive in the natural soils, climate, weather, rainfall, and sun exposure of their native region. Wild species have evolved to take advantage of the resources provided by these native plants. Without them, wildlife populations decline. As a result, only native plants provide the full range of habitat benefits needed by native wildlife.

Native plants are great choices for your landscape. When planted in their natural conditions, they require almost no maintenance once established. While establishing, native plants may need supplemental watering. It can take as little as a few weeks for the natives to become established and rarely take more than one growing season. Planting natives can mean a significant reduction in the amount of pesticides and fertilizers released into the environment and can eliminate the need for supplemental watering.

Enter our contest for a chance to win the book!

With knowledge of what makes a healthy ecosystem and an understanding of how your garden or landscape can play a role in its restoration, you can make a difference for wildlife where you live by creating habitat and having it recognized. by the National Wildlife Federation as a certified wildlife habitat. You can start the process by learning more about the native wildlife in your area and how to provide food, water, shelter, and places for wildlife to raise their young. The result will be a yard full of birds, butterflies, and other wildlife you want to attract.

See also  Our noisy world stifles the joy of listening to the birds

Black-eyed Susans and purple coneflowers brighten up a native garden. Photo by David Mizejewski

Buy native plants

Your wildlife habitat garden should contain as many native plant species as possible. Native plants are the basis of habitat in the wild and should also be found in your wildlife habitat garden. Some native species have been staples in garden centers for years. For example, native dogwoods (Horn spp.), echinacea (Echinacea spp.), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) and blueberries (Vaccine spp.) have long been cultivated as ornamental plants. Even so, finding a wide variety of native plants at your local garden center can sometimes be difficult. The horticulture and landscaping industries are just beginning to recognize the ecological and economic value of working with native plants. Some companies label native species to make it easier for native plant enthusiasts to find suitable plants.

Many nurseries that sell native plants often only offer specially selected or cloned hybrids or cultivars that have been chosen for their landscape value or appearance. A variety is a particular type of a species. Varieties occur naturally or are created by people through selective breeding. A cultivar (short for cultivated variety) is a variety that has been created by people through breeding or cloning. Unfortunately, selective breeding for ornamental qualities alone often affects the qualities that made the original plant species beneficial to wildlife, and cloning can result in a loss of genetic diversity that occurs naturally in the wild.

For example, cultivars with larger or differently shaped flowers often prevent pollinators from accessing the nectar and pollen they contain. Insects such as bees can see ultraviolet light invisible to the human eye. Many flowers have ultraviolet coloring to attract bees that we cannot see. We can easily inadvertently reproduce such characteristics and render a cultivar useless to wildlife without even knowing it.

You can identify which plants are cultivars by looking at the names on their plant tags or their plant descriptions. Each plant has a common name and a scientific name. A plant’s common name is written first, followed by the scientific name in italics in parentheses. An example of this is river birch (Betula nigra). Cultivars are given special names by their breeders or cloners. These special names are listed in quotation marks on the plant label after the common and scientific names. A popular cultivar of river birch is ‘Heritage’. The plant label for this cultivar would read River Birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’). Hybrids are indicated by an “x” in the scientific name. An example of this is the hybrid cultivar of two shrubs, fragrant sage (Salvia clevelandii) and purple sage (Salvia leucophylla), both originating in the West. The hybrid name is Gray Musk Sage (Salvia clevelandii X leukophyll ‘Blue Pozo’).

Reading plant labels will give you important information that will help you make your plant selections. Native cultivars and hybrids aren’t necessarily bad choices for wildlife, and often they’re the only options available at retail garden centers. Think of cultivars and hybrids as domesticated versions of wild plants. Releasing packs of domestic dogs into the wild is not the same as restoring populations of gray wolves, even though all dogs are descended from wolves. Sticking to the original native plant species or cultivars that are as close to native wild appearance as possible is the best plan if you are working to restore a functional part of the ecosystem. They are definitely better choices than lawns or non-native plants when it comes to wildlife habitat in a landscape or garden.

See also  Birds don't rely on feeders, study finds

Native Plant Societies and Nurseries

There are many ways to learn which plant species are native. Field guides are a good starting point; just keep in mind that they sometimes include all the species you might commonly see in a particular area, both native and non-native. A regional guide to native plants is best and an internet search will yield many results. Contacting your local or national native plant societies can provide the most reliable information. They are dedicated to preserving and restoring the natural floral heritage of their region. Most have excellent lists of native plants that can be obtained for free. Many hold annual native plant sales, and the members themselves are often a wonderful source of native plants grown in their own gardens.

Most native plant societies can provide you with a list of native plant nurseries in your area. Today, most garden centers offer natives, and many even label them as such. There are even nurseries that specialize in native plants. If you don’t have a nursery that sells native plants nearby, you can order them online or through catalogs. The plants that are shipped to you are often sent bare-rooted, which means that all the soil has been washed away from their roots. Not only does this make them lighter for shipping, but it often reduces plant cost because it is cheaper for the nursery to grow them in beds rather than containers.

The problems of non-native plants

• Non-natives can become invasive and degrade naturally diverse ecosystems.
• Non-natives can introduce and harbor diseases that afflict native species.
• Non-native plants do not support native wildlife species.
• Some non-natives require expensive maintenance and unnecessary watering and chemicals.

Find native plants

• Contact your local native plant society to find out which plants are native to your area and which are invasive or other problematic non-native plants.
• Learn how to propagate plants from seeds and cuttings and grow your own native plants.
• Participate in plant exchanges with other native plant growers.
• Organize a factory rescue on a construction site.
• Let your local nursery know that you will buy native plants for wildlife if they are available and clearly marked as native.
• Visit nurseries that have native plants.
• Visit for more native plant resources.