Category Archives: Bird plants

A Very Berry Time of Year

‘Tis the season to be berry! Winterberry, that is…

There are some native plants that you grow, not so much for their flowers, or foliage, but for the blazing color of their berries. This is the time of year, in late autumn when the landscape is mostly brown and gray, that the winterberries come alive in the wetlands throughout New England:

Winterberries in full berry bloom along Route 9, Brookfield MA

Winterberries in full berry bloom along Route 9, Brookfield MA

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is native to the eastern US, and is our only deciduous native holly. It has become very popular as a landscaping shrub for its fall and winter interest.

Earlier in the fall, winterberries ripen to a bright glossy red, but are visible only as red swabs across a vast fiery canvas:

Winterberry holly at the pond, Garden in the Woods, Framingham, MA

Winterberry holly at the pond, Garden in the Woods, Framingham, MA

It’s winter, when all is replaced with white, that winterberry really shows its colors:

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Birds love the berries too (called drupes), but mostly overwintering birds such as cedar waxwings, robins and bluebirds who don’t migrate. Summertime birds don’t touch the berries because they don’t taste good until later in the year — when a few freeze and thaw cycles seems to make them edible. So thankfully for us, the beautiful red berries usually last through the first of the season snows before they are gobbled up.

Most of the winterberries sold in nurseries are cultivars selected for their compact habit (e.g. ‘Red Sprite’), larger berries (‘Jolly Red’) or even unusual berry coloring (‘Winter Gold’):

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Orange-gold berries on Winterberry ‘Winter Gold’ (in background) at Tower Hill Botanic Garden, Boylston, MA

As a wildlife gardener, I’m concerned that the berries of some winterberry cultivars may not be as attractive to wild birds who rely on fall fruits for survival in early winter. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that the berries found on wild-grown winterberry species disappear long before the berries found on the cultivars, so I’m curious to see whether this is true in my area. I have ‘Winter Red’ planted on my property, along with straight species nearby, but the berries of all of them are always gone by New Years. It makes sense that local birds might prefer food from local genetic provenance, as indigenous plants and bird species have co-evolved over millennia, and rely on each other’s presence in the landscape. Certainly local herbivores (mostly local insects which are crucial food for nesting birds) are more likely to prefer the locally-grown native winterberry foliage as a food source.

Position your Winterberry shrub within a sight line of a window, so you can enjoy viewing the berries and birds in wintertime!

Position your Winterberry shrub within a sight line of a window, so you can enjoy viewing the berries and birds in wintertime!

So if you’re looking for an eastern US native shrub to plant “for the birds” and  have an area with decent soil moisture and mostly sun, winterberry is an outstanding choice. Don’t forget that as a holly (Ilex), winterberries are dioecious, meaning that in order to produce fruits, female plants need a male winterberry planted nearby blooming at the same time, so that bees and other pollinators can transfer pollen from male to female flowers. Ask for a “male pollinator” at the nursery, and plant it within a bumble bee’s flight distance of your female winterberry (50-100′ or so).

Bumble bees are frequent visitors to winterberry holly flowers, and their pollination services are essential for female plants to produce their fruit “crop”. Susan Pelton photo from https://uconnladybug.wordpress.com/2015/06/23/little-flowers-can-have-a-big-impact/

Bumble bees are frequent visitors to winterberry holly flowers, and their pollination services are essential for female plants to produce their fruit “crop”. Susan Pelton photo from https://uconnladybug.wordpress.com/2015/06/23/little-flowers-can-have-a-big-impact/

Note on Male Winterberries: ‘Southern Gentleman’ is a male clone commonly sold at nurseries, but propagated from southern genetic stock, so not ideal for northern gardens — it’s genetically programmed to bloom at a different time than northern varieties. Ask your native plant society for growers that propagate their plant stock from regionally local genotypes to purchase your winterberry hollies.

This is reprinted from my original article posted in the now defunct Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens blog.

Virginia Rose

Have you always loved roses, but hate the spraying, fertilizing, watering and pruning they require to keep them from looking a mess? Please meet the lovely Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana). Unlike its highly-bred, cultivated cousins (hybrid tea roses and modern cultivars of climbing roses) this native eastern rose is hardy to the coldest parts of New England, grows happily in almost any soil, needs little to to no irrigation except for rainwater, and blooms its head off through June with pink flowers with the most heavenly fragrance. Not to mention, their beautiful red fruits (hips) persist right through the winter, feeding birds and providing winter interest when the landscape is otherwise white and brown. What’s not to love?

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Most Virginia roses bloom in light or medium pink, although there are white-flowering cultivars available too (I’ve not had good experience with the white-flowering form, however). Their flowers might not have the fluffy allure of the larger double-formed hybrids, but their single-flowering form makes them much more attractive to butterflies and other pollinators, who don’t have to fight their way through many layers of petals to access the sweet nectar and pollen at the center of the flower. And did I mention its fragrance?

When it’s happy, which is in any decent soil with good drainage and plenty of sunshine, Virginia rose will spread fairly rapidly within just a few years, so if you have a large area you’d like to fill in quickly with a wildlife-friendly native plant, Virginia makes a great choice.

In bloom, a pink tapestry of Virginia rose mingles beautifully with foxglove, cranesbill and other late spring bloomers and will form a low, thorny hedge that offers excellent year-round predator protection for the birds visiting your gardens. This sunny hillside of our farm was planted with a single container of Virginia rose in 2006, and by June 2009 it had happily spread to form a sizeable thicket:

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As you might imagine, its spreading habit (through underground roots that snake in every direction) makes Virginia rose unsuitable for small gardens, where its roots will eventually take over surrounding plants and form dense canes that shade them out. A better-behaved but just as pretty wild rose is Virginia’s closest cousin, Carolina or pasture rose (R. carolina) which spreads by slowly enlarging clumps rather than spreading roots.

In the thicket above, an annual mowing stops Virginia rose runners from spreading into the adjacent lawn, but you can also contain its advancing roots with a hard root pruning every few years with a sharp shovel. A driveway also makes a good boundary, as long as you don’t use large amounts of salt to de-ice your driveway.

Note: Please let it be known that I would dearly love for the above Virginia rose thicket to spread and cover the entire hill, but hubby has drawn a literal line in the sand (with rocks!) where his lawn cannot be further encroached! I am hoping he won’t notice the line has moved a few times

So planting Virginia rose in beds with other perennials is not a good idea, but in a new planting of a large area, you can interplant with self-seeding annuals, biennials or short-lived perennials to fill the bed for the first few years while the rose spreads….I initially planted the above bed with common sage, purple coneflower, cranesbill, foxglove, cosmos and cleome, and after 4 years, mostly only the foxglove remains in the area, probably because its seedlings are more shade-tolerant than the others. The others I have simply moved to other areas of the garden or given away to friends.

If you’ve grown roses before, you’ll appreciate that Virginia’s foliage is very resistant to most of the common diseases that disfigure roses. Like all roses (wild or cultivated), Japanese beetles love to eat its foliage, but if your plant is healthy and vigorous, it should shrug off any damage. These roses bloom in June in central Massachusetts, and Japanese beetles don’t tend to arrive in large numbers in our area til early July, so by the time the beetles start chewing, you should have other beautiful blooming plants to distract you from a few holes in their leaves.

 Virginia rose canes top out at about 4′, so you should never need to prune them for height, especially because you’d be cutting off one of the plant’s best features, its plump red hips that you barely notice until the first winter snows suddenly bring them to life:

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The hips must be pretty sour to taste, because the birds don’t seem to touch them at all during the winter. They disappear around the beginning of spring here, so winter’s deep freezes must sweeten them up a bit, or else late winter birds are too hungry to be picky. I often see their thorny stems used as a temporary hideout by foraging winter birds, who get spooked by hungry hawks hovering around my bird gardens and feeders. The white background makes tiny birds much more visible to larger predators (my dogs will confirm this because they constantly mistake them for chipmunks!) but even a cat is unlike to risk those nasty thorns and go in after them…

If your garden conditions are boggy or wet, the best native roses for garden use are swamp rose (R. palustris) and New England rose (R. nitida), although these bloom a little later than the field roses in summer.

If you look, you may still find native roses growing wild in natural areas. More often than not, though, roses that you see in the wild are the invasive multiflora rose (R. multiflora), which is often assumed to be native but is an introduced rose from Asia that has been steadily overtaking old fields in New England for decades:

19-x Multiflora rose closeup cropped reduced Although birds do eat their berries, multiflora rose has a highly negative impact on its surroundings, forming enormous thickets that crowd out the native plants that underpin balanced and healthy ecosystems. Chances are, if you see a large, fragrant sprawling wild rose with white flowers and arching stems, it’s multiflora rose. Removing these from your property can be a great contribution to protecting local biodiversity…you can either replant with one of our native New England roses, or use the “wait, weed and watch” approach, which means simply rooting out any remaining multiflora canes that pop up over time, and allowing any native plants that are still hanging on to make a comeback.

If you try the wait, weed and watch approach, be prepared for a funny thing to happen. You’ll begin to notice an increasing variety of birds, butterflies and other interesting wildlife that visit your naturalized area, many more so than your more cultivated garden areas, and eventually you will realize that your wildlife garden, with all the life it attracts, is your most beautiful and favorite garden of them all…

** BY THE WAY ** Apologies to my email blog subscribers who received a half-written article on Wednesday by email – I hit the “Publish” button instead of the “Save” button and the article went out as is  {deep embarrassment}. The complete article is available here: Gimme Shelter…for the Birds

Hunger Moon

Good news for gardeners! Yesterday’s full moon, on the last day of February, means that spring is in sight! New England’s native Americans, who had a name for each full moon as a way of tracking the calendar, called February’s full moon the Snow, or Hunger Moon. This time of year, food must have been tough to come by when you depend upon your natural surroundings to survive.

It’s also the toughest time of year for the birds that spend winters in New England. Many seed plants are buried under snow, and the tastiest berries were eaten months ago from the winterberry hollies, dogwoods and wild cherries. Insect populations are at their lowest, making it tough for woodpeckers and other insectivores to keep themselves going til the bugs of spring start to arrive.

Remember this time of year when you plan your gardens. Some shrubs have berries that taste awful until they have been through a few freeze and thaw cycles, meaning that birds won’t eat them unless they are starving. My Virginia Rose still has most of its berries (hips), but in the past few snowy weeks, I have finally seen birds picking at them. In some years, birds don’t touch our flowering crabapples until late winter, when the cardinals or early arriving cedar waxwings pick them clean. Strangely, in some years these berries disappear well before Christmas…

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And try to keep as many of your seed plants standing into winter as you can, instead of hacking your perennial beds to the ground in the fall. Especially if you live in an urban area with few natural food sources, your garden’s seed heads poking out of the snow might mean the difference between life or death for some of our hungry feathered friends.

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A Northern Junco picks at the seed heads of Lavender Giant Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) during a snowstorm.

Juncos (aka Snowbirds) breed in northern New England and Canada during the summer, but they migrate south to New England to spend the winter! They are cute but tough little birds that rely on the seeds of goldenrodasters and other native plants to keep them fed all winter.

So look around your yard and ask yourself. Do your local birds have natural food sources to keep them going during the Hunger Moon? Feeders are great for supplementing natural food sources, but they often attract the “wrong kind of birds” and squirrels, and keeping them stocked can get expensive. Invest in some bird-friendly plants and shrubs, and you’ll feed birds, for free, for years to come.

Backyard Habitat in Autumn

As any New England ‘leaf peeper’ will tell you, there’s a unique beauty to the annual decay of our natural surroundings. Our Massachusetts backyard, landscaped as a natural habitat, takes on a whole new life in the autumn, when berries ripen, plant stems are loaded down with seeds and the songbirds that eat them, and foliage changes to its fall plumage of earth tones. I always love the contrast of the earliest changing plants (usually ferns) which are a harbinger of the symphony of color still to come:

Below: Possum-haw Viburnum (Viburnum nudum) berries are starting their transformation from green to pink to purple. They will continue to ripen into the winter, providing valuable food for our winter birds. Viburnum is a shrub with multi-season interest – in the months to come, their leaves will also take on a gorgeous burnished tone…

Gardens are now a medley of reds, browns, yellows and everything in between:

Below: Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) climbing up a pine tree. Did you know that poison ivy is one of the best native vines for birds? Yes, there IS something good about poison ivy!! Its white berries are a food source for more than 50 species of birds. But poison ivy is one plant I would NEVER recommend planting in gardens. Its foliage and stems cause a severe allergic reaction in most people that touch it…even if you seem to be immune now, you can lose immunity at any point in your life. This is not a plant to encourage in your yard, but if it pops up in an out of the way area where people or pets do not travel, why not let it climb up a tree and provide food and perhaps even nesting for your local birds? It will reward you with its flaming red, orange and yellow foliage: