Attracting Birds to Gardens – Best Small Trees
Attracting birds to gardens is easy if you plant for them. Small trees are part of the foundation of any landscape design and a yard can be both beautiful and wildlife friendly. When you have the choice between which trees to use, why not pick something that is going to create a backyard habitat and bring life to your environment? These are a few small trees which have done well for me in my Georgia 7b landscape. They are native to the eastern, south and southeastern United States but may also preform well in the northeastern U.S.
The criteria for my list is:
1. Easy to grow
2. Low maintenance
3. Will tolerate drying out
4. Have ornamental value in a formal landscape design
5. Will tolerate acid soil
6. Easy to locate in local nurseries
Small Trees for Bird Gardens
Holly Ilex whatever – Holly is a great bird plant. The evergreen foliage provides coverage and nesting sites, the berries are gorgeous and provide food, plus holly is an excellent ornamental. It can be used as an evergreen specimen or planted for privacy hedges. Holly cultivars and species can be confusing as it has been crossed so many times and hybridized to death so look carefully at whatever you choose. Chinese holly cultivars are often useless for wildlife as they are sterile, meaning there will be no nectar for pollinators or berries for birds. Chinese holly isn’t nearly as attractive in my opinion. Also be aware that some hollies are self pollinating while others need a male and female plant to set berries.
American Holly Ilex opaca is commonly found in the nursery trade and grows to 20′. It is not as dense as some of the cultivars but the birds are particularly fond of the berries. Other native hollies are: Dahoon Holly Ilex cassine and Yaupon Holly Ilex vomitoria. With Yaupon holly, the commonly seen ‘Stokes Dwarf’ is male and will not produce berries. I haven’t quite figured out if this cultivar is sterile or not. I suspect it may be. Sterile in a habitat garden is not a good thing as it is not a food source, not even for pollinators. Native to the eastern United States (USDA Range Map).
Dogwood Cornus florida – A southern classic, what is a landscape without a dogwood? The large, showy flower bracts in spring are a welcomed site. Flowering dogwood is shade tolerant and may be grown as a small understory tree or planted in full sun. It will tolerate our clay soil but for long term is best planted in loamy, organic dirt as a stressed dogwood can be susceptible to several pests and diseases. Healthy specimens usually don’t have as many problems. There are white and pink varieties but be sure to speak with your nurseryman about which has the best disease resistance.
Flowers are insect pollinated, frequently by beetles and flies. Dogwood has a beautiful shape with horizontal, layers that form tiers. Summer foliage is a deciduous mid green and can be a lovely contrast against deeper greens of holly, conifers or magnolias. The fall color is worthwhile in an ornamental landscape as the leaves turn deep reds to purples.
Bright red berries appear in autumn which will be quickly eaten by backyard birds and wildlife. Some birds that will use the fruit as a food source are: Eastern Bluebird, northern cardinal, dark-eyed junco, American robin, northern bobwhite, tufted titmouse, wild turkey, tree swallow and woodpeckers. Native to the southern, northeastern and eastern United States (USDA Range Map).
Hawthorn Crataegus whatever – Washington Hawthorn Crataegus phaenopyrum, Parsley Hawthorn Crataegus marshallii or Mayhaw Crataegus C. aestivalis and C. opaca. I adore hawthorn. I grow all three mentioned and for a warning, these guys have thorns. Parsley hawthorn is the least thorny of the lot, and in my case the thorns aren’t a problem but don’t plant them in an area where small children play.
Hawthorn is a deciduous small tree which can grow from 15′ to 30′. Pretty much everything about hawthorn is showy so it is a best pick for an ornamental landscape. It can tolerate heavy pruning so is suitable for formal designs as well. Spring flowers are fragrant and grow in lovely white clusters which will attract pollinators. The bright red berries are also showy and while some hawthorn berries are a bit large for songbirds, most are readily eaten. The fruit often persists through a couple of freezes and provide a winter food source.
Summer foliage is a glossy deep to mid green with small, delicate shape. Fall color is outstanding depending on the species you choose. Most are orange and red, however my parsley hawthorn turns a reliable bright yellow. Hawthorn is shade tolerant but prefers sun, has medium maintenance and water requirements. Native to the southern, northeastern and eastern United States (USDA Range Map).
Sassafras Sassafras albidum – A bird garden needs sassafras. Not only is it fun to say, the birds love the berries and the fall color looks like a child designed it in bright pastel pink, purple, orange and yellow. Sassafras is an aromatic small tree which usually only grows to about 30-40′ but if grown as an understory tree can streatch out to 60′. It will tolerate shade and may be grown under larger canopy trees. Sassafras will tolerate clay soil and is drought tolerant, making it a great pick for southern landscapes. It also prefers our acid soils and will tend to develop chlorosis in alkaline soils.
Sassafras has a reputation for being difficult to transplant but you can indeed plant it successfully. The issue which makes it difficult is that this tree has a large taproot. The taproot makes it hard to dig up but container grown plants sold in nurseries should survive just like any other tree. Water it well when young. Left to its own devices, sassafras will form multi trunk thickets. You can prune back suckers or let it form a colony depending upon your placement. It is also a host plant for Spicebush butterfly, Tiger swallow-tail, Pale Swallowtail and Palamedes butterflies.
Trees are male and female so finding both sexes can be a problem, but it can be done. Blue black berries appear in fall and the birds love them. Native to the southern, northeastern and eastern United States (USDA Range Map).
Serviceberry Amelanchier arborea or Amelanchier x grandiflora. There are a few native serviceberries out there, it can get confusing. Some are shrub forms and others may be small trees but wherever you are in the United States there is sure to be on native to your zone. I am going to go with Amelanchier arborea as it is relatively easy to find in nurseries. This is a tree that I am glad to see being used more often in an ornamental landscape. It’s beautiful all year, is wildlife friendly and non invasive. Serviceberry is a great native plant alternative to awful Callery Bradford pear.
Serviceberry Amelanchier arborea is a small tree reaching 15′ – 25′. This plant tends to sucker so you if you wish it to tree form, you need to prune the base for the first few years. It can be grown in sun or part shade and prefers medium, well drained soils. Small white flowers appear in spring which is attractive in a landscape design while being attractive to pollinators. The summer foliage is lovely with small tooth, obovate leaves. In fall the color is brilliant reds, yellows and orange.
With fall comes edible small, round berries the birds will quickly devour. The berries taste somewhat like blueberries. They are attractive and are a light green when they first appear, then turns to red and finally a deep blue black color when ripe. One thing to note about serviceberry is that you will need two non clones for pollination and for the plant to set berries. One specimen of two cultivars is the easiest solution. ‘Autumn Brilliance’, ‘Princess Diana’ should be easy to find at local garden shops. Native to the southern, northeastern and eastern United States (USDA Range Map).
Southern Wax Myrtle Myrica cerifera – Technically a shrub but much under used in my opinion. Wax myrtle is under used for good reason – people do not realize its ornamental value. When you see this plant at a nursery or landscape supply it is presented as a busy, unruly looking shrub and not so attractive. However it can be formed into a lovely single trunk tree or multi seemed tree if you wish. Then the crown may be pruned and shaped however you like. On its own it will form a rounded crown which looks great on a single trunk tree. As a tree it is beautiful, aromatic and unique. The narrow foliage is unusual and brings texture to a landscape design. Use it!
The biggest problem with forming wax myrtle into a tree is buying one at a nursery and then having to prune most of the plant to shape it. Beginner gardeners won’t want to do this, but don’t worry, wax myrtle can take it. I had to prune 3/4 of the container wax myrtles I purchased to get them to shape into multi trunk trees and they quickly filled back in.
Southern wax myrtle Myrica cerifera is a vigorous grower and tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions. It may be grown in sun to part shade and the water requirements are medium. In damp areas it will sucker and form a thicket. if you have an out of the way spot you want a thicket and need some privacy, wax myrtle may be a good choice. Suckering is easy to manage where you don’t want it.
Plants are male and female with dark blue berries forming along the stems. The flowers and berries are both insignificant yet an important food source for pollinators and songbirds. The yellow rumped warbler, ruby-crowned kinglet, white-eyed vireo, and palm warbler will all eat wax myrtle berries. This will attract a wider variety of birds to your backyard an these species do not regularly visit feeders. Native to the southeastern and eastern United States (USDA Range Map).