Native Plants

Gardening for Birds with Native Plants

by Jim Green of Lycoming Audubon Society

In conjunction with the Audubon at Home program promoted by both Audubon Pennsylvania and National Audubon, the Lycoming Audubon Society encourages all of us to give careful consideration to the flora we introduce and maintain on our own properties. Plants native to your specific region are generally easy to grow and maintain, and they play an important part of regional ecosystems--which includes birds, insects, mammals, other animals and flora.

Note: Jim recently made a presentation at the Master Gardeners Symposium regarding 'Your Yard Can Be Good Bird Habitat', and developed a .pdf outlining his presentation 

Below are a number of plants native to north-central Pennsylvania (and typically adjacent regions as well) that are especially attractive to birds.

Silky Dogwood, Cornus amomum

Silky Dogwood berries in late summer
One bird-friendly shrub worthy of your consideration is Silky Dogwood, Cornus amomum. Native to Pennsylvania and surrounding states, Silky Dogwood is easy to grow and is one of the fastest growing native shrubs. Its whitish flowers in May or June are quite an attraction, even though they are smaller than that of its more famous and larger cousin, Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida). Much more appealing, from an avian point of view, are the prolific metallic blue berries that ripen in August and September. Catbirds, mockingbirds, cardinals, and many other species munch on these delicacies. Come October, Silky Dogwood dazzles us with lovely purple and red leaves, followed by reddish stems that last the winter.

Due to its rapid growth, I recommend buying Silky Dogwood as seedlings no more than 1 or 2 feet tall. According to 'Native Plants of the Northeast' (Leopold, 2005), it can also be propagated by “softwood cuttings” or started from seeds that have been exposed to 3 or 4 months of low temperature. It will do well in either full or partial sunlight and though it prefers moist soil, it has prospered in the moderately dry soil of my backyard. This is a shrub that will grow as much horizontally as it will vertically – up to 15 feet, so allow plenty of room for it to expand. For a hedge, place plants every 3 or 4 feet apart.

Assuming you don’t have a friend to donate ‘silkies’ to you, where can you purchase them? Musser’s Forest, Inc., a large nursery in western Pennsylvania will ship them to you in bundles of five or more. Other sources include the Game Commission’s Howard Nursery, some of the county conservation districts, and other nurseries that specialize in native plants. Happy gardening!


Serviceberry with ripening berries in late May
Autumn color of Serviceberry
Serviceberries are small trees and shrubs with multiple attractions. In the spring, lovely white flowers adorn their slender branches, though the flowering period is short. Soon after, berries start to form and later ripen during late May and June, which explains one of their nicknames: Juneberry. Mockingbirds, cedar waxwings, catbirds and other species savor the reddish-purple berries, which can also be safely enjoyed by humans when ripe. I admit that I find them quite tasty! Come autumn, when the angle of sunlight lowers and nights turn chilly, serviceberries' alternate leaves turn beautiful shades of red, orange, and yellow.

Three species of serviceberry trees and shrubs occur naturally in the Commonwealth: Amelanchier arborea or Downy Serviceberry, Amelanchier canadensis or Shadbush Serviceberry, and Amelanchier laevis or Allegheny Serviceberry. According to "The Plants of Pennsylvania" (Rhodes & Block, 2000) Shadbush Serviceberry grows naturally only in the southeastern counties, whereas the other two species occur throughout our state. In the wild, these trees usually have multiple trunks and don’t grow much larger than 15 to 30 feet tall. I have observed a number of healthy single-trunked specimens on city streets in Williamsport and on the Penn College Main Campus. They grow in both damp and dry soil and need at least partial sunshine to flourish.

Why not add a Serviceberry or two to your property? Once established, they need little maintenance and will not overwhelm a small yard with their modest size. Because their fruit matures so early in the growing season your neighborhood birds and perhaps your human neighbors will appreciate the late spring delicacies. Many nurseries that specialize in native plants sell Serviceberries. Sometimes, you can also find them at other nurseries and tree farms. Amelanchier is one of the native species that National Audubon recommends to provide food and cover for one of our favorite songsters, the Wood Thrush. Note there are serviceberry species NOT native to our area; Saskatoon Serviceberry is one example that is sometimes sold at Pennsylvania nurseries.

Black Elderberry

Black Elderberry berries in late summer Black Elderberry
Black Elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, is a native shrub that is quite easy to grow and care for. It requires at least partial sunlight and prefers soil that does not become dry. Small clusters of creamy white flowers appear in late spring or early summer and are followed by a proliferation of small, dark purple berries. Dozens of bird species relish those juicy elderberries in late summer. Black Elderberry, also called American Elder, is one of the fastest growing native shrubs around. In 2005, I purchased two plants, each about 18 inches tall. Other than adding compost at the start of each growing season and watering them during dry weeks, all I’ve done is watch them grow. And grow they have! After two growing seasons, they were six feet tall and provided a great crop of berries. During dry times I water my Elders more often and I am always rewarded with a plentiful crop of berries. Catbird families typically hang around my yard in August to feast on these delicacies.

If not pruned, this shrub reaches top heights of up to 15 feet and can extend almost as wide, so be sure to plant it in a location where it has ample room to expand. Like many other shrubs, it will spread by suckering. Most nurseries that specialize in native plants sell Black Elderberry. Musser’s Forests, Inc., a large nursery in western Pennsylvania (from which I’ve purchased many native plants) sells seedlings in bundles of five or more. A closely related native species that also grows rapidly and may be just as attractive to birds is Red Elderberry, Sambucus pubens.

Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) Lobelia cardinalis in late June, with the first hints of the soon-to-emerge stalk of red flowers
This is a beautiful native plant that hummingbirds love. Many of us are especially fond of these tiniest of birds. We marvel at their rapid wingbeats, incredible ability to hover, and their seemingly endless endurance. One of the best wildflowers whose nectar attracts Ruby-throated (and other species of) Hummingbirds is Cardinal Flower, Lobelia Cardinalis. This spectacular plant, native to Pennsylvania and surrounding states, grows up to 5 feet tall and produces an array of crimson red flowers along its long, narrow stalk.

Cardinal Flower needs moisture, so be sure to keep the soil moist if you plant it in soil that sometimes dries out. It does grow well in partially shaded sites, though the greatest flower display occurs in sunny locations with damp soil. Cardinal Flower is not the easiest plant to grow and it may take a year or two after planting to become accustomed to your yard, but its lovely long-lived flowers in mid and late summer make the care you give it worthwhile. It is a prolific seed-producer, so once it becomes established, expect volunteers to emerge!

A closely related species, Great Blue Lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica is similar in appearance and growing conditions, generally easier to establish in a new site, and produces light purple flowers which also attract hummingbirds and butterflies.


Spicebush with October color
Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, is a deciduous shrub native to Pennsylvania and all of the eastern states. One of its attractions is the early arrival of its abundant, small yellow flowers, typically in April, which are a welcome sight after a long, cold dormant season. Another attraction is its spicy aroma, which explains its name. Native Americans and early European-Americans made tea from its bark to treat colds, fevers, and other medical disorders.

In the "wild‟ Spicebush occurs in or at the edges of woodlands. In your garden, it will do best under shade or at least partial shade. Plant it in soil that retains moisture, though you may have success in dry soil if you water it regularly. Due to its dioecious nature (distinct male and female plants), it's best to add at least 3 or 4 separate plants for good fruit production. As summer grows old, oval green berries or drupes form on female plants and then turn bright red as they ripen. These berries, while ignored by some birds, are favorites of the Wood Thrush and Veery, and are food for at least 13 other species (per Stephen Kress of National Audubon).

After the fruit ripens and temperatures drop, Spicebush's alternate leaves turn a cheery yellow. Like many shrubs, it can spread as wide as it grows tall: 8 to 12 feet on average. During the growing season, Spicebush serves as a host plant for the larvae (caterpillars) of a pair of beautiful butterflies: Spicebush and Tiger Swallowtails. Do deer visit your yard and munch to their heart's content? Then, Spicebush is a must, since it is one of the least favorite foods of White-tailed deer, perhaps due to its aroma. Deer typically eat it only as a last resort.

Spicebush grows at a moderate rate and, according to Donald Leopold, author of Native Plants of the Northeast (2005, Timber Press, Inc.), can be started from seed: “…warm stratify for one month, then cold stratify for three months”. You can also find Spicebush at nurseries that specialize in native plants. I purchased three plants around year 2005 and planted them in the dampest part of my backyard. They've done well!

Eastern Redcedar

Redcedar's blue berry-like cones
Eastern Redcedar, Juniperus virginiana, is one of our best native trees for offering nesting sites and year-round shelter, thanks to its dense and rather prickly foliage. While less common in the upper reaches of the Susquehanna Valley than in southern Pennsylvania it is easy to grow because it is not picky about soil type – it grows in damp or average or dry soil. It does prefer plenty of sunlight and, once established, is exceptionally resilient during dry, hot weather.

In spite of its common 'cedar' name, this long-lived species is a Juniper and the only Juniper native to the eastern states. It typically reaches a height of 30 to 50 feet and a width of 15 to 25 feet. Catbirds, Mockingbirds, Cedar Waxwings and many other species savor the berry-like light-blue cones, as do a variety of mammals. Due to its dioecious nature, you should plant several individuals to maximize the odds of having both female and male plants. Redcedars have a moderate growth rate and individual trees can be planted four to six feet apart to make a hedge.

If you or a neighbor have apple, serviceberry or other fruit trees trees, be aware that these Junipers can serve as hosts for fungal diseases such as 'Cedar-apple Rust'. These diseases cause little or no damage to Redcedars but can result in major damage to the fruit and leaves of nearby fruit trees.

You can find Juniperus virginiana at some nurseries that don't specialize in native plants. Despite its eventual tolerance for drought, be sure to keep any new plantings well-watered during dry periods in the first couple of years.

More information from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower center.

Trumpet Honeysuckle

Trumpet Honeysuckle's flowers & leaves

Trumpet Honeysuckle flowers in late May
Trumpet Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, is an easy-to-grow native vine that still shows off its colorful flowers in October and sometimes later.  Its exotic 'cousin', Japanese Honeysuckle, is better known but also has a well-deserved bad reputation as an invasive species. In contrast, Trumpet Honeysuckle, also called Coral Honeysuckle, is much better 'behaved' and has a wonderful asset: its long tubular flowers attract Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and butterflies. If you have a fence or trellis in a sunny location, why not add this native vine to your property?

Trumpet Honeysuckle will thrive on moist or average soil and grow to over 20 feet in length if not pruned. It has simple, opposite, oval-shaped, blue-green leaves which typically persist well into the cold season, and its attractive flowers are red (with a hint of orange) on the outside and yellowish-orange on the inside. Those flowers, of course, provide the nectar that 'hummers' and other pollinators relish and are typically a couple of inches long and trumpet-shaped. This twining vine also produces small red berries in late summer.

I've planted this vine in a few different locations. Other than watering them well in the first year and during dry periods in the next growing season, they've been maintenance-free plants. Every year, they extend their growth and provide a number of lovely flowers. One year on October 11, I watched a Ruby-throated feed from its flowers, the latest I've seen a 'hummer' in my yard.

Lonicera sempervirens is uncommon in the ‘wild’ in Pennsylvania and like most other vines can also be a ground cover. It starts to bloom in late spring. Some flowers fade while others bloom throughout the summer and as mentioned above, deep into autumn. Many nurseries that specialize in native plants sell Lonicera sempervirens, often as a cultivar. If it's not a species in your yard, consider adding it. Once it blooms, it will certainly attract our Ruby-throated hummers and just maybe its reddish flowers will attract one of those wayward western species of hummingbird next autumn!

More information from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower center.

Pennsylvania Native Plant Society website (select 'Resources' for a list of regional native plant sources, databases, etc.)

For more information, check our Links of Interest page.