By Elaine Mills, Extension Master Gardener
Photos by Elaine Mills
In February, we introduced woody plants that provide shelter and nesting spots with their evergreen foliage, holes and hollows, thorns and thickets. Lower-growing herbaceous plants, especially ground covers such as ferns and grasses, can also provide seasonal cover and nesting materials for wildlife.
- Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) gets its name from its evergreen nature and the stocking-like shape of its frond leaflets. It offers winter cover for songbirds who also use frond parts and the scale-like hairs of its fiddleheads as nesting materials.
- Marginal wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis), an evergreen, vase-shaped fern, forms substantial clumps around 2 feet tall and wide, providing year-round cover near the ground for toads, lizards, salamanders, and other small critters. Its parts are also used by birds in nest construction.
- The scale-like “fuzz” on the fiddleheads of cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) is a favorite nesting material for various bird species, including the Carolina chickadee, yellow warbler, and hummingbird. Other birds, such as brown thrashers and veeries, nest on the ground in the fern clumps, which also create a protected environment for small mammals, lizards, and frogs.
- Northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) has a singular growth habit with its fronds held horizontally in the shape of a fan. It spreads slowly by rhizomes to create colonies which offer shelter for toads and lizards and cover for small mammals. It adds an elegant touch to the landscape when used as an accent or edging plant in shaded borders or woodland gardens.
- Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), noted for its distinctive deeply cut vegetative fronds, is native to moist woodlands, stream banks, and marshes. In home landscapes, it is well suited to pond areas or water gardens where it can shelter salamanders and frogs.
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- Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is noted for the open airy appearance of its seedheads and the multi-season interest of its foliage. It offers architectural structure to the fall and winter landscape while providing year-round cover and nesting materials to birds.
- Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) is an elegant, warm-season, clump-forming grass, typically growing 3 to 5 feet tall. Its arching blue-green leaves offer year-round cover and nesting sites for birds, and its upright habit provides winter interest and nesting structure for native bees.
- Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a warm-season bunchgrass, is a versatile plant that can be used as an accent in xeriscapes, combined with herbaceous perennials in a meadow garden, or massed on slopes to control erosion. It is functional as well as ornamental, offering year-round cover and nesting materials to wildlife.
- The clumping habit of pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) provides excellent year-round cover for birds and perching places for butterflies. With its airy rosy-red flower plumes, this warm-season grass can be stunning either used as an accent plant or massed as a screen.
- Purple top (Tridens flavus), a tall, warm-season bunchgrass, is especially ornamental with its reddish-purple seedheads from summer into fall. When planted en masse it can provide significant year-round cover for wildlife.
- Field thistle (Cirsium discolor), a tall native thistle not to be confused with weedy, non-native bull thistle and Canada thistle, is attractive to goldfinches who use the thistle down as a lining material for their nests and, additionally, enjoy eating the plant’s seeds.
Plants with hollow or pithy stems provide nesting for young of the 30 percent of native bees that are stem-nesters. Woody plants, such as staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) and common elderberry
(Sambucus canadensis), are frequently sought by mason bees, small carpenter bees, and yellow-faced bees for this purpose.
Home gardeners can create additional habitat for native bees and provide seedheads for birds by retaining large-stemmed herbaceous species, such as New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), coastal plain Joe-pye-weed (Eutrochium dubium), New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), and cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) over the winter. If the stems are cut back to varying heights from 8 to 24 inches in the spring, female bees can use them for laying their eggs. New plant growth will quickly cover up the unsightly cut stems that will provide shelter for the maturing bees until they emerge as adults the next spring.
Leaves of other plants, such as eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) and eastern blue-star (Amsonia tabernaemontana) are utilized by leafcutter bees to create cigar-like rolls to protect young in their nests.
Finally, even dead plants can provide shelter. Standing dead trees, called snags, offer shelter to birds, bats, squirrels, and raccoons for raising their young and provide excellent lookouts from which raptors can spot potential prey. Fallen logs and tree stumps serve as shelter and nesting sites for native bees, wasps, and beetles.