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In This Place

Landscape Trees and Shrubs for Both Birds and Bees

Jason Means / flickr /


September is a great time to think about adding some good native plants to your yard for the benefit of wildlife, like fruiting shrubs and trees as well as perennials that attract insects and birds alike. Based on what I've learned from my own yards over the years, from researching the literature, and from managing the pollinator garden at Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary, I’m here offering some of my top plant recommendations in the categories of landscape trees and shrubs for both birds and bees, and hummingbirds plants. 


Trees and shrubs give you the most bang for your buck in terms of providing habitat for all sorts of wildlife, from hawks to hawk moths, and are typically the lowest maintenance plants for landscaping. The best first step, starting at the land development stage, is to leave the native oaks, cherries, pines, viburnums, and other trees and shrubs instead of adding lawn and dopey plants like fussy roses and sterile hydrangeas.  

Beyond that, there are plants available for purchase that add significant wildlife value back onto the landscape of a developed parcel. I’ll start with the widely available native hollies: Winterberry, Inkberry, and American Holly. The small whitish flowers on these plants buzz with all sorts of pollinators in spring, then turn into fruits that can last all winter long and attract waxwings, bluebirds, robins, and other frugivores. The same goes for crabapples – spring flowers attract bees and orioles, the leaves feed many native insects, and the hardy fruits attract birds all winter.  

Next, Red Mulberry trees provide the first native fruits of summer and thus are covered in all kinds of birds and mammals as they begin to ripen in July. Native Dogwoods like Pagoda, Silky, and Gray Dogwoods feed bees in spring then birds in late summer, like the catbirds currently gobbling the abundant blue Silky Dogwood fruits by my office. Beach Plum flowers are of regional importance to native bees in spring, and birds and people of course fight over the fruits in late summer.  

To attract and feed hummingbirds from spring through early summer, mass Wild Columbine in a sunny spot. The gorgeous red hanging lantern-style flowers are among my all-time favorites, and the hummingbirds seem to agree. Then find a spot in sun to part sun for the native Coral Honeysuckle, a woody vine technically classified as a liana. Hummingbirds find their flowers to be “totally tubular”, as they evolved to be pollinated by their long bills. A second bloom means their flowering period spans the spring and summer months.  Scarlet Beebalm (Monarda didyma)also sports tubular red flowers attract more hummers than bees compared with other bee balms. No perennial attracts more hummingbirds than Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), though I have not had much luck growing it. If you try, be sure to get the straight species – research shows that hybrid cultivars produce almost no nectar. Better yet, find a native population of Cardinal Flower in a local wetland and enjoy the dual show of spectacular scarlet flowers and sparring hummingbirds.  

Next week I’ll recommend my top native plants for bees, butterflies, wasps, and other pollinators that you can add to your yard this fall planting season. In the meantime, please visit our renovated pollinator garden at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, where the plants are labeled and alive with bees and butterflies right now. That’s where you are likely to find me hanging around showing people Monarch caterpillars and talking about native bees, while I fall further and further behind in my desk work. On a related note, if you’re waiting on an email response from me and you haven’t heard anything by the first frost, send help..