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Question of the Week © 2017 Mike McGrath

Note: Hundreds of Mike's informative articles are available (in alphabetical order!) right here at the Gardens Alive website. To find Mike's answers to your specific garden problem, Click here and find your topic (like Weeds, Worms, Rhododendrons...) in our complete alphabetical archive of Questions of the Week.


Audubon's List of Ten Native Plants that Benefit Birds

Q. I want to establish a food source to attract more wildlife to my yard. I have moved some thorn apples, chokecherries and salmon berries from the wild into my yard. What other plants would attract birds?

---- Shelly in Poplar, Wisconsin

A. What a coincidence! The Audubon Society just sent me a list of ten great native plants known for their ability to attract birds to your backyard, based on the recommendations of native plant enthusiast/cheerleader Doug Tallamy.

Number one on the list? Echinacea; known generically as coneflower, and a choice no one can argue with. They're very pretty plants, come in a vast array of colors, aren't fussy about where they grow, and mine always attract a gaggle of goldfinches at the end of the season. (The cute little birdies feast on the tiny little seeds while they're upside down, sitting on top of the plants with their cute little beaks pointed straight towards the ground.)

Oh and Echinacea is also the source of the herbal medicine of the same name. The tinctures and other forms of the herbal medicine (felt to strengthen the immune system) are prepared from a specific species of coneflower, and preferably from the root. And since coneflowers are perennial, most people don't want to dig up the roots. So if you desire birds and herbal medicine ingredients, grow a lot of Echinacea. Not the worst thing, by far…

The number two plant on the list is sunflowers. (This is an attractive bird garden!) And I can tell you from experience that all sunflowers are great attractors, from the giant oil head types (that are often commercially grown for birdseed) down to the cutest ornamental types. And the smaller ornamental sunflowers attract lots of pollinators and beneficial insects as well as small birds like finches.

Then comes milkweed, which we've covered in depth in past articles that you can look up under the letter M right here at the Gardens Alive YBYG archives.

Next up is "Cardinal Flower", which I reckon means a plant with a big hat that's potentially in line to be the next Pope.

Okay, okay—better known as Lobelia, its long red tubular flowers attract lots of hummingbirds. And the plants are much better behaved than some other hummingbird attractors. So where's the 'cardinal'? The color of those flowers is said to resemble the same shade of red as the robes of a Cardinal. (That would be the cleric kind; not the bird…)

Then comes "Trumpet honeysuckle".

Get back here! This is not the same plant as the both dreaded and coveted Japanese honeysuckle. The good Doug Tallamy would rather chew on ground glass while being dangled over a fire of burning pitch than it ever be thought that he would even tolerate the Japanese species. This is the native American honeysuckle. It doesn't have the wonderful scent of the Japanese (indeed, it has little to no scent at all), but it is a magnet for hummers and other birds—and well behaved, which I cannot say for the next choice on the list….

"What?" I hear you all saying: "We thought Doug Tallamy was the champion of well-behaved plants!"

It turns out he is more the champion of native American plants. Because his next suggestion—Virginia creeper—shows that behavior does not always get a prime spot on his dance card. This admittedly-native vine—(often mistaken for poison ivy, but the creeper has 'leaves of five' instead of three) will quickly take over an area. It is native, but it is also invasive, and I don't recommend it unless you're really good at keeping vines under control.

Then comes "Buttonbush", which is the only plant on the list I'm not familiar with. Doug says it attracts waterfowl. You can look up more information if you're interested; I have to get my car inspected and then pack for my two appearances at the Leesburg Flower and Garden Festival on Sunday. And yes, my crazy mad schedule IS why I jumped on this list—but it's a good list! And Shelly really wrote the email question!

Okay—so she wrote it in 2007. We're a little backed up here. And what; are you a cop?

Anyway, I absolutely love the next plant on the list! Elderberry has so much going for it that it's almost not fair. It's attractive; good for wildlife; and syrups, jams, tinctures and wines made from the fruits are nature's best antiviral—perhaps a better protection against the flu than the flu shot. (Especially this year...)

Finally, the list finishes up with two trees.

Oaks provide excellent protection and nesting opportunities for many types of birds. But you just gotta love these trees in general; they are great plants. In fact, oaks have been called "The Tree of Civilization", as they have helped mankind progress in so many ways over the centuries.

And we end with dogwoods. Magnificent trees that I have not given nearly enough air time to. To quote Doug, "nothing says spring quite like a dogwood full of newly-bloomed flowers." And after those flowers fade he adds, "Cardinals, titmice, and bluebirds all dine on the fleshy fruit."


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