Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.
Craig Tufts looked onto his Virginia yard, mostly a sea of native grasses including the broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus), which boasts a golden-orange hue in winter. Eight inches of fresh snow had just painted the landscape white, a complement to the sunset-like colors of the broomsedge that reached above the snow line.
"There I saw a huge flock of field sparrows and juncos foraging on the seeds," says Tufts, chief naturalist for the National Wildlife Federation. "I just love that." It's easy to enjoy similar scenes in your own winter garden by using native plants that attract wildlife. You can get started right now for immediate results and also plan for the future to attract creatures that spend winters where you live.
In every season, wildlife mostly require three amenities: shelter, food, and water. By planting the right natives gardeners can attract various mammals in winter, such as squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, a wide variety of birds depending on location, and insects including overwintering butterflies.
Native vegetation provides places where wildlife can find cover from predators and inclement weather. Native evergreens, such as cedar, fir, spruce, and hemlock, offer cover for songbirds and small mammals. The cavities of standing dead trees also can provide a warm haven for flying squirrels, raccoons, and birds to roost at night. Janet Kelly, who teaches courses in native gardening for wildlife in New York, said she planted some native hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) in her yard to offer shelter for chickadees. "We've had some pretty cold winters," says Kelly, "and I worry about the chickadees."
Jim Gallion, the owner of Maryland-based Wildlife Gardening Adventures, recommends creating a brush pile from logs, branches, twigs, and leaves and criss-crossing the heavier logs at the bottom to create a sort of tepee. Small mammals can use the brush piles to escape predators. "
The brush piles can also offer a place for salamanders and insects to overwinter," says Gallion. "The mourning cloak butterfly, which overwinters as an adult in woody debris, may use your brush pile, too." Even though they go bare in winter, carefully chosen deciduous trees and shrubs also can provide shelter for animals. Tufts suggests planting shrubs with high density. "These shrubs tend to be twiggy - they have less distance between branches. That gives better cover and also provides good nesting spots in the spring and summer," he says. In Arizona and western New Mexico, Tufts recommends planting cholla cactus (Opuntia spp.), desert willow (Chilopsis linearis), and different acacias (Acacia spp.) to provide animals shelter as well as a place to raise young.
Just south of the boreal zone in Canada and the northern United States, native viburnum and trees in the Cornaceae family have plenty of density to offer shelter even though they lose their leaves in winter. "
These shrubs will predominantly attract songbirds and some of the game birds such as bobwhites and quail, which look for dense undergrowth in winter," Tufts says. Gardeners with native prairie habitat can provide cover for animals in winter, too. "If you have a meadow or prairie patch, the grasses and forbs provide stem density that's good for cover, for birds as well as rabbits and other mammals," Tufts says. "If you have a prairie patch, [depending on where you live] wait to burn until March or April, just so the wildlife can get the most benefit from it."
During winter, wildlife can make meals of things you may never expect. "I leave all my plants up all winter because insects will overwinter there," Gallion says. These insects also can be a meal for a hungry creature in winter.
Rusell Link, a wildlife biologist from Washington, suggests not raking leaves or other dead vegetation. "Leave plenty of leaves and debris on the ground under trees and shrubs for wildlife to forage in throughout the winter months," says Link, author of Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest.
Gil Waldbauer agrees. "During the winter in colder climates most insects are inactive, but they need a place to stay - either underneath the soil, underneath bark, or in the stems of herbaceous plants," says Waldbauer, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and author of The Birder's Bug Book.
Those insects make good food for some animals, like the downy woodpecker, which will devour overwintering caterpillars from out of the dead stalks of plants and shrubs. Other birds and some mammals need berries, seeds, and nuts for sustenance in the winter, and watching them come to the feast can be a real treat.
Kelly, who has an 80' by 180' garden in New York, offers this advice: "If you are limited to space, the most important thing you can do to attract wildlife is plant something that will hold its berries all winter." Some examples of native shrubs that hold their berries in New York and the upper Midwest include northern bayberry (Morella pensylvanica) and chokeberry (Photinia spp.), according to Kelly. At the end of fall and start of winter, animals that hibernate or go into a type of deep sleep find berries nourishing as well as perfect treats to store for later in their underground winter tunnels. "
We have [at home] a chipmunk that fills up on evergreen huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum) before it settles in for winter," says Link. "This wonderfully productive and attractive shrub is growing outside our kitchen window." Link also recommends planting red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) in western Washington and southwestern British Columbia during winter. The Oregon grape fruits are eaten by birds including pheasants, robins, and juncos, as well as foxes and raccoons.
Gallion particularly loves deciduous winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), native to much of the eastern United States. "They produce abundant fruits that serve as an important food source for birds, like the cedar waxwing," says Gallion. "The mockingbirds love the winterberry," he says. Ensure you'll get berries by planting both male and female specimens of this and other hollies.
In Texas, the Carolinas, and other nearby states, wax myrtle (Morella cerifera) berries are particularly attractive to wintering yellow-rumped warblers. (Again, make sure to plant male and female specimens.) These warblers nest in the boreal zone, then come to Texas and other southern states for the winter.