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Home grown: Mary Pellerito

Native trees give the most bang for the buck

December 01, 2010 - If you want to attract more birds and butterflies to your garden, consider planting any of these three native trees species: Oak, Willow, and Cherry. These native trees host over 1400 species of insect herbivores. In other words, these native trees support caterpillars and other insects that attract insect-eating birds.

What do butterflies need to survive and thrive in your garden? They need plants that provide nectar for adults and host plants that provide food for butterfly larvae. Most of us only think about the plants that provide nectar. Adult butterflies lay eggs on plants on which their larvae will feed. The caterpillar (or larva) feeds on the leaves of the host plant. Eventually, the caterpillar, if a bird hasn't eaten it, spins a cocoon. Many butterfly species over winter in this stage. When the time comes, the adult butterfly breaks out of the cocoon and starts the circle of life again.

What do birds look for in a tree? The structure of trees provides multiple opportunities for refuge and nesting. Birds such as orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks like to nest in the uppermost parts of tall trees, while cavity nesters, such as chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers, owls, and bluebirds, use the lower levels. Most important though is you want to have a variety of insects available for birds to eat. This summer I watched as a mother house sparrow continuously fed her young with insects gathered in our yard and surrounding wetland.

When planting a species of oak, willow, or cherry, you will need to pay attention to its Latin name to ensure it is native and not an import. Michigan native oaks include white oak (Quercus alba), bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), red oak (Quercus rubra), and black oak (Quercus velutina).

Oaks support more species of moths and butterflies then any other plant, thus oaks provide more types of bird food than any other plant. Oak trees take a decade to produce acorns, so be patient. Oak acorns provide a regular food supply for wood ducks, wild turkeys, blue jays, nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, and woodpeckers. Returning migrants, such as warblers, vireos, and tanagers, flock to oak trees for the insects the trees harbor in the spring.

When we think of willows, we think of weeping willows, which are non-natives trees. Native willows include the black willow (Salix nigra) and the sandbard willow (Salix interior). You can attract commas, viceroys, red-spotted purples, and mourning cloak butterflies with willows. Black willows are also excellent hosts for several wood-boring beetles that attract woodpeckers that eat the larvae of these beetles all winter long.

Native wild cherries include black cherry (Prunus serotina), chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), and pin cherry ( Prunus pensylvanica). The caterpillars of the swallowtail and the red-spotted purple butterfly feed on cherry tree leaves. Cherry trees also provide fruits for birds, like grouse, pheasant, evening and rose-breasted grosbeaks, bluebirds, robins, and thrushes for weeks in late summer.

As gardeners, we want to design our landscape to attract insects. Once we start to understand and see for ourselves the workings of the food chain in our own gardens, planting for a continuous bug buffet is the most natural way to garden. Without insects, there is no food chain, without the food chain, there is no life. So think about planting an oak, willow, or cherry tree and see the food chain at work up close and personal in your own back yard.

Native plants have evolved and adapted to local conditions over thousands of years. They are vigorous and hardy, so they can survive winter cold and summer heat. Once established, they require no irrigation or fertilization. They are resistant to most pests and diseases. Thus, native plants suit today's interest in "low-maintenance" gardening and landscaping. The root systems of native plants are often long and go deep into the soil, helps rainfall percolate into the soil, reducing erosion and runoff thus improving water quality. Simply stated, native plants work with, rather than against, nature.

Native plants help preserve local pollinators, insects, birds, and animals, and other wildlife that have co-evolved with plants of local ecosystems and depend upon them for food and shelter.

For more information about native plants, visit the Wild Ones website at

Mary Pellerito is a garden writer living in Brandon Township, Michigan. She is a Master Gardener and a member of Wild Ones. You can contact Mary at

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