By Elaine Mills, Extension Master Gardener
Photos by Elaine Mills
When we speak of our gardens sustaining local wildlife, we’re often thinking of the nectar and pollen that insects and hummingbirds collect from our flowering plants; the seeds, nuts, and fruit enjoyed by birds and small mammals; or the nourishment butterfly and moth caterpillars receive from the foliage of larval host plants. One additional type of support for animals in our home landscapes is supplied by plants that offer shelter, nesting sites, and nesting materials.
Because of their more permanent woody structure, trees, shrubs, and vines are the most obvious spots animals will seek for cover. Plants with evergreen foliage are especially important in providing protection from extreme winter weather and storms. These plants can, incidentally, provide energy savings for humans when sited on the northern side of homes to block winter winds. Other trees offer shelter in natural holes and hollows that form in their trunks, while thorny or thicket-forming plants provide cover in their branches. It is important to provide plants of various heights in the garden as bird species make use of trees and shrubs at different levels.
The following are native trees with evergreen foliage:
- The flat sprays of lacy foliage on eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), a dense, pyramidal conifer, provide winter and extreme-weather cover.
- Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), a 30- to 60-foot-tall conifer, has dense horizontal branches with scale-like evergreen foliage that provide excellent roosting and nesting cover for birds, butterflies, and small mammals. It can be used as an ornamental specimen, tall hedge, or windbreak.
- American holly (Ilex opaca) provides winter cover for animals with its spiny, evergreen leaves. If planted in the understory, it should not be situated in too much shade, or its foliage will lose its protective density.
- Sweetbay or swamp magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), an evergreen to semi-evergreen tree, provides winter and extreme weather cover for birds and other wildlife. It is useful as a specimen or patio plant or in a large rain garden.
- The branchlets of arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) are arranged in dense, flat sprays of dark green foliage that provide cover and nesting sites for birds. The taller cultivars can be used in hedges, screens, and windbreaks, while smaller cultivars are better suited for foundation plantings.
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These additional native woody plants are also evergreen:
- Rosebay or great rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) often grows in dense thickets in the shady understory, providing excellent winter cover and nesting for birds and other wildlife. In home gardens, it can fill the same role when used in shrub borders, wood margins, and other naturalistic areas.
- The glossy, evergreen leaves of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) create quality year-round foliage and winter cover. This shrub prefers partial shade and acidic soil of woodlands.
- Inkberry (Ilex glabra), the only native evergreen holly shrub, provides important winter cover to wildlife while bringing a welcome touch of green to a winter landscape.
- Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is a twining vine with areas of dense growth that provide extreme-weather and winter cover for birds. It can be used as a climber on arbors, fences, and walls, and near entries or patios where it brightens the winter landscape with fragrant early blooms.
Holes & Hollows
- Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), a 50- to 80-foot tree, is a prolific producer of cavities, making it one of the more dependable den tree species. Its natural hollows are a refuge for reptiles, tree frogs, bats, and other wildlife.
- Older trees of bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) form hollows and natural cavities that are used as cover by wildlife and provide nesting sites for the yellow-throated warbler, bald eagle, and pileated woodpecker. Frogs can live in moist areas in the hollow trees during summer months.
- Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), a 50- to 70-foot tree, often contains natural hollows used by wildlife for hiding or raising young. Woodpeckers, for example, use the hollow trunk for nesting cavities in late April and May.
- Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) provides nesting sites for birds, summer roosting habitats for bats, and protective cover for wildlife both in its hollows and under its peeling bark.
Thorns & Thickets
- Songbirds are attracted to the low, thorny branches of cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli) for cover and nesting, especially when the small tree spreads by suckers to form thickets.
- Swamp rose (Rosa palustris) and Carolina or pasture rose (Rosa carolina) spread slowly by suckers to form colonies and can be massed in garden borders, meadows, or naturalized areas, offering excellent year-round cover for wildlife.
- Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) is a dense, rambling, deciduous shrub, growing 2 to 6 feet tall and spreading by root suckers to form thickets 10 feet wide, providing cover for small mammals and birds.
- While not evergreen, thicket-forming, or thorny, American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) is an attractive native understory tree with forked branches and dense foliage that attract birds for cover and nesting sites.
Return on March 1 to learn about the role herbaceous plants can play in providing shelter and nesting for a range of animals from insects to amphibians, birds, and mammals.