Tips for finding and growing native plants for birds

native plants
Native plants provide food and nesting materials for birds such as American Goldfinch. Photo by Leigh Scott/Fox Chapel Publishing

Naturalist and TV personality David Mizejewski of the National Wildlife Federation has just published the expanded second edition of his how-to book Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife. Below is an excerpt from the book’s first chapter, in which he discusses identifying, restoring, and purchasing native plants. 

Identify the plants that currently grow in your yard and neighborhood. Take photos and use online gardening sites, garden plant apps, or gardening books, or bring your photos to your local nursery for identification help. You’ll be surprised to find that many of the plants used in landscapes are not native. Instead they come from other parts of the world and were chosen because of their beauty or functionality in the landscape. Ability to grow in poor soils, to withstand air pollution, to provide ornamental blooms and foliage, and to resist disease are plant characteristics that typically outweigh a plant’s value to wildlife when people choose plants for their gardens. Many common species that you’ve seen your entire life are really non-natives that have been introduced in just the last century. The fact that you are used to seeing them and may mistake them for natural parts of the ecosystem does not change their negative impact on native plant and wildlife species.

Restoring Native Plants

Plants are the tools you will use to create your wildlife habitat garden and connect your property back into the local ecosystem. Native wildlife species have evolved to depend on the plants that are also native to their ecosystem.

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Native plants are adapted to the range of seasonal conditions in their region. This means that they have evolved to thrive in the natural soils, climate, weather, rainfall, and sun exposure of their native region. Wildlife species evolved to take advantage of the resources provided by these native plants. Without them, wildlife populations decline. As a result, only native plants provide the entire range of habitat benefits needed by native wildlife.

Native plants are great choices for your landscape. When planted in their natural conditions, they require almost no maintenance once they are established. While they are establishing themselves, native plants might need supplemental watering. It can take as little as a few weeks for natives to become established and rarely takes longer than one growing season. Planting natives can mean a significant reduction in the amount of pesticides and fertilizers released into the environment and can eliminate the need for supplemental watering.

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With the knowledge of what makes a healthy ecosystem and an understanding of how your garden or landscape can play a role in restoring it, you can make a difference for wildlife where you live by creating a habitat and having it recognized by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Wildlife Habitat. You can start the process by learning more about the native wildlife in your area and how to provide the food, water, cover, and places for wildlife to raise young. The result will be a yard filled with the birds, butterflies, and other wildlife you wish to attract.

Black-eyed Susans and purple coneflowers brighten a native garden. Photo by David Mizejewski

Purchasing Native Plants

Your wildlife habitat garden should have as many native plant species as possible. Native plants are the foundation of habitat in the wild and should be in your wildlife habitat garden, too. Some native species have been garden center staples for years. For example, native dogwoods (Cornus spp.), coneflower (Echinacea spp.), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.), and blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) have long been cultivated as ornamentals. Even so, finding a great variety of natives at your local garden center can still sometimes be challenging. The horticulture and landscaping industries are just beginning to recognize the ecological and economic value of working with native plants. Some companies label native species to make it easier for native plant enthusiasts to find the appropriate plants.

Many nurseries that sell native plants often offer only specially bred or cloned hybrids or cultivars that have been chosen for their landscape value or appearance. A variety is a particular type of a species. Varieties occur naturally or are created by people through selective breeding. A cultivar (short for cultivated variety) is a variety that has been created by people via breeding or cloning. Unfortunately, selective breeding for ornamental qualities alone often affects the qualities that made the original plant species beneficial to wildlife, and cloning can result in a loss of the genetic diversity that occurs naturally in the wild.

For example, cultivars with blooms that are larger or a different shape often prevent pollinators from accessing the nectar and pollen within. Insects such as bees can see ultraviolet light not visible to the human eye. Many flowers have ultraviolet coloration to attract bees that we cannot see. We can easily inadvertently breed out such features and render a cultivar useless to wildlife without even knowing it.

You can identify which plants are cultivars by looking at the names on their plant tags or plant descriptions. Every plant has a common name and a scientific name. The common name of a plant is written first, followed by the italicized scientific name in parentheses. An example of this is river birch (Betula nigra). Cultivars are given special names by their breeders or cloners. These special names are listed in quotation marks on the plant tag after the common and scientific names. A popular cultivar of river birch is ‘Heritage’. The plant tag for this cultivar would read River Birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’). Hybrids are indicated by an “x” in the scientific name. An example of this is the hybrid cultivar of two shrubs, fragrant sage (Salvia clevelandii) and purple sage (Salvia leucophylla), both western natives. The hybrid name is gray musk sage (Salvia clevelandii x leucophylla ‘Pozo Blue’).

Reading plant tags will give you important information that will help you make your plant selections. Cultivars and hybrids of natives aren’t necessarily bad choices for wildlife, and often they are the only options available through retail garden centers. Think of cultivars and hybrids as domesticated versions of wild plants. Releasing packs of domestic dogs into the wild isn’t the same thing as restoring gray wolf populations, even though all dogs are descended from wolves. Sticking to the original native plant species or cultivars that are as close to the wild native in appearance as possible is the best plan if you’re working to restore a functioning bit of the ecosystem. They are certainly better choices than lawn or non-native plants when it comes to wildlife habitat in a landscape or garden setting.

Native Plant Societies and Nurseries

There are many ways to learn which plant species are native. Field guides are a good place to start; just keep in mind they sometimes include all the species that you might commonly see in a particular region, both native and non-native. A regional native plant guide is better and an internet search will deliver many results. Contacting your local or state native plant societies can provide the most reliable information. They are dedicated to preserving and restoring the natural floral heritage of their region. Most have excellent native plant lists that can be obtained free of charge. Many hold annual native plant sales, and members themselves are often a wonderful source of native plants grown in their own gardens.

Most native plant societies can provide you with a list of native plant nurseries in your area. Today, most garden centers carry some natives, and many even label them as such. There are even some nurseries that specialize in native plants. If you don’t have a nursery that carries native plants nearby, you can order them online or via catalogs. Plants shipped to you are often sent bare-root, which means that all the soil has been washed away from their roots. Not only does this make them lighter for shipping, it often reduces the cost of the plants because it’s cheaper for the nursery to grow them in beds instead of containers.

The Problems with Non‑Native Plants
• Non-natives can become invasive and degrade naturally diverse ecosystems.
• Non-natives can introduce and harbor diseases that afflict native species.
• Non-native plants do not support native wildlife species.
• Some non-natives require costly maintenance and wasteful watering and chemicals.
Finding Native Plants
• Contact your local native plant society to learn what plants are native to your region and which are invasives or other problematic non-natives.
• Learn how to propagate plants from seeds and cuttings and grow your own native plants.
• Participate in plant swaps with other native plant growers.
• Organize a plant rescue at a construction site.
• Let your local nursery know you will purchase native plants for wildlife if they are available and clearly marked as native.
• Patronize nurseries that carry native plants.
• Visit www.nwf.org/garden for more native plant resources.

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David Mizejewski

David Mizejewski

David Mizejewski is a television host, media personality, author, blogger and a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation. He holds a degree in Human and Natural Ecology from Emory University and is an expert on wildlife and our environment. He’s dedicated to using his knowledge and his enthusiasm to help others understand and protect wildlife. He hosted and co-produced Backyard Habitat, a television series on Animal Planet that showed people how to transform their yards and gardens into thriving habitats for birds and other local wildlife. The expanded second edition of his how-to book Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife was published in 2019.

David Mizejewski on social media