Posts Tagged native wildlife food source
When we southeastern US homeowners release ourselves from the notion of a rigidly controlled landscape, magic happens. Instead of spending time shearing defenseless evergreen azaleas and boxwoods into cubes and spheres, or pouring chemicals onto a non-native lawn that you must then mow and fuss over, you can devote your energy to enriching your home landscape with native plants adapted to our region.
Not only will your blood pressure drop as diverse native shrubs, trees, wildflowers, ferns, and vines adorn areas once reserved for sterile sod carpets, our native wildlife — birds, insects, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles — will gratefully seek shelter and food in the havens you create. Suddenly, your home landscape not only contains beautiful and relaxing plants, it is also animated by native wildlife — a win-win for all.
After you’ve adjusted your thinking about your home landscape to embrace native species, myriad options unfold before you. The purists can plant unhybridized specimens of a plant. These species will be identical to the native vegetation that naturally occurs (where it hasn’t been obliterated) in our region.
For a little more wow factor in your home landscape, many, many wonderful varieties of our native species — called cultivars — have been developed by horticulturalists and are sold at most nurseries. For example, my spectacular specimens of Magnolia — ‘Elizabeth‘ and ‘Butterflies‘ — are both cultivars of our native Magnolia acuminata.
As all gardeners know, creating a landscape is a long-term endeavor. Unlike redecorating the interior of your house, when you implement a landscape design of any kind, you must factor time into the equation. Plants are alive; they start small and grow larger. Weather, disease, and animal predation affect how they grow and whether they flourish. But in my 45+ years of gardening experience in this region, I have learned that if I plant a landscape dominated by a diverse array of well-sited natives, year-round, breath-taking beauty is my reward.
Autumn is almost upon us, which means now is the time to review your landscape plans, so that you will be ready for the fall plant sales that abound in our region this time of year. Perennials, shrubs, and trees are all best planted during the fall and early winter in our region, because the cooler temperatures encourage root growth, thereby better preparing your new additions for summer heat waves next year.
In central North Carolina where I live, the plant sale I get excited about is the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. The sale is an annual tradition at this Chapel Hill, NC public garden, and the array of healthy native plants available increases every year.
This year, among their many offerings, are two species of Pipevines — Wooly Dutchman’s-pipe (Aristolochia tomentosa) and Pipevine (Aristolochia macrophylla). These shade-loving vines with heart-shaped leaves add vertical interest to a naturalistic landscape, and they produce interesting little flowers that really do resemble tiny pipes. My fanciful brain imagines elves smoking them beneath the abundant fairy rings of toadstools populating my yard.
But I plant this vine mostly because it is the only larval food source for Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies. This is one of our more spectacular large native butterflies, but we don’t see it much in the Piedmont region, because its larval food sources (what the caterpillars eat) are not widely available.
Yes, this means that if you succeed in persuading Pipevine Swallowtails to lay eggs on your Pipevines, the caterpillars will eat holes in the leaves. But these vines are vigorous and perennial. New vines will sprout from the roots the next spring. For my money, a few ragged Pipevine leaves are a small price to pay for seeing Pipevine Swallowtails visiting the nectar-rich flowers I grow nearby.
Creating a rich, diverse native landscape is like choreographing a ballet. Shapes, colors, and forms interweave in a complex dance that differs daily, promising always to entertain and engage observers while feeding and sheltering the dancers.
So, my fellow green-thumbed choreographers, now is the time to patronize your favorite plant sales, preferably first at your local public gardens that use sales proceeds to keep their garden gates open to the public. And if you live within driving distance of Chapel Hill, NC, pencil in a visit to the NC Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale on September 26 (members-only night) or September 27. Options will be numerous; truly there will be plants to suit any growing condition your home landscape may possess. I’ll hope to see some of you there!
Although astronomically not quite here yet, Winter has already made its presence thoroughly felt in my landscape. Recent weeks have featured a procession of gloomy, chilly, rainy days punctuated by rare sunny days followed by cold, star-filled nights. The native plants on my five acres of Piedmont have responded by going deeply asleep. Leaves lingering on towering oaks linger no longer, instead released to dance upon chill north winds until frost paints their fallen forms.
Grays, browns, and tans dominate. At least textures still vary to offer some entertainment for bored eyes. And then there are the hollies. Thank goodness for the hollies!
American Holly (Ilex opaca) is the evergreen holly native to my part of the southeastern US. In our native forests, it tends to be slow-growing and relatively small, often a bit distorted as it strains for light beneath a deciduous canopy. You’ll find it in any relatively moist forest, sometimes in great abundance. Birds and other animals spread seeds after devouring the bright red fruits. Well over a thousand cultivars of this native exist. Most were selected for consistent berry production and perhaps some disease resistance.
The famous plantsman, Michael Dirr, is not a fan of this native. He thinks too many, better options exist to make efforts with I. opaca worthwhile. I disagree, but my perspective is not Dr. Dirr’s.
Dr. Dirr’s focus is always on the potential impact a plant will make in a home landscape. Because most folks want low-maintenance, consistent performers, ideally packing a “wow” factor, Dr. Dirr believes our native American Holly is best replaced with an English or Asian holly. The well-known cultivar, ‘Nellie R. Stevens,’ is a cross between those two non-native species, and it’s probably what most folks think of when they think of hollies in the South.
I prefer to champion the case for our native American Holly. In the wild, it is highly variable in fruit production, leaf color, and disease resistance, but I argue that this variability is what makes every encounter with the species more interesting. As I wander my winter landscape, my eye is drawn to small islands of distant green — almost always an American Holly holding court among brown grasses and gray tree trunks.
First, I look for fruits. Hollies are dioecious, meaning male flowers occur only on some plants and females only on others. For good fruit production, you must always plant a non-berry-producing male plant near your females. Holly flowers are relatively small, but pollinators find them without difficulty. During their bloom time in spring, my hollies hum with the activity of enthusiastic visitors.
American Holly prefers moist forests, so you won’t find many on ridge tops. My five acres of bottomland, however, offer ideal growing conditions, and I find volunteers popping up from the top of my hill to the edge of my creek along the floodplain. They may not be “wow” plants, but they are beloved by local wildlife, providing food for Cedar Waxwings, Wild Turkeys, Eastern Bluebirds, Brown Thrashers, Northern Mockingbirds, and raccoons, among others.
The evergreen leaves also provide shelter against winter winds and precipitation. On more than one cold winter morning, I’ve disturbed whole flocks of songbirds when I’ve unwittingly drawn too close to a holly they were using for shelter. With a whoosh, they scatter in all directions, leaving the Green Queen of the winter landscape vibrating.
I encourage all Piedmont gardeners to find room for American Holly in their home landscapes. It doesn’t need to be beside your front door. But it would happily be part of a grouping of mixed native species that could serve as a native wildlife haven, and a welcome spot of green in a gray winter landscape.