This article appeared in the December 2020 Indiana Native Plant Society-Central Chapter newsletter. To receive this newsletter and join a community of native plant enthusiasts, consider joining INPS. Learn more and join at www.indiananativeplants.org.
Thank you to INPS Central Chapter for allowing us to republish this article.
When it comes to starting a wildlife garden project, most gardeners tend to focus on the spring and summer months, when wildlife is very active. But fall and winter are the most critical times to be supporting wildlife. If you want a diverse array of wildlife on your property you need to make sure there’s ample food available in the weeks before winter’s arrival, so the animals can consume and store as much nutrition as possible. In the dead of winter it can be difficult for wildlife to find food to survive, especially in urban areas so, we really need to think about making our landscapes more of a buffet for wildlife. Apart from food the other essential item needed for a successful fall and winter wildlife garden is suitable habitat. Winter habitat comes in the form of the plant stems, leaves, and debris you should leave in place for the winter. Planting a selection of deciduous, semi evergreen and evergreen creates a color palette bridging each season.
Birds and native plants are made for each other, thanks to millions of years of evolution. Colorful fruits feed birds and, in return, birds spread the plant’s seeds far and wide, supporting whole ecosystems. Common bird species that do not migrate, such as northern cardinals, woodpeckers and mockingbirds, depend on berrying shrubs in winter to provide calories and crucial nutrients especially during the cold months when other natural food sources are nonexistent or buried in the snow. In addition to providing winter food, berrying shrubs are multi-functional. Shrubs planted densely in a border attract many more birds to your property like cardinals and thrushes seeking cover and nesting places.
Dogwoods do double duty in winter as the vibrant red, orange, or yellow twigs stand out in the landscape or as seasonal decoration. Songbirds migrating in late fall may stop on your property attracted to the high fat content of the white berries of the Grey Twig Dogwood, Cornus racemosa or the shrubby red-osier dogwood Cornus sericea, to fuel their journey. The berries attract robins, bluebirds, thrushes, catbirds, vireos, kingbirds, juncos, cardinals, warblers, wild turkey and grouse.
American Crabapple provides delicious red fruits into the winter seasons for wildlife to eat. Depending on what species you have in your area, you will see a variety of birds and mammals eating the fruit. Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) offers ferny leaves that turn bold red in fall. It also features clusters of furry dark red fruit that hold on through the winter, supplying a variety of birds including robins and vireos. Fallen persimmons draw autumn-flying butterflies, and opossums enjoy the remains.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is sometimes known as “forsythia of the wilds” because its dense clusters of tiny, pale yellow flowers in early spring gives a subtle yellow tinge to many lowland woods. An important larval food plant of spicebush swallowtails and promethea silkmoths, spicebush supports wildlife in a number of ways. At least 24 species of birds feed on the fruit. Its thickets provide cover for birds and small animals. Its high-energy drupes are gobbled up by gamebirds and woodland songbirds, as well as mice, chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons and opossums. The aromatic leaves and bark of this plant may also be enjoyed by humans, made into a tea or dried and powdered as a substitute for allspice.