The Importance of Native Trees

article image

If you want to attract more birds and butterflies to your garden, consider planting a native oak, willow, or cherry tree.   When selecting an oak, willow, or cherry tree, pay attention to its Latin name to ensure it is native and not an import.  Native oak, willow, and cherry trees host over 1400 species of insect herbivores that attract insect-eating birds and birds that feed insects to their fledglings.  This summer I am watching bluebirds feed their young insects gathered around our property.

What do butterflies need to survive and thrive in your garden?  They need plants that provide nectar for adults and host plants that provide food for butterfly larvae.  Most of us only think about the plants that provide nectar.  Adult butterflies lay eggs on plants on which their larvae will feed.  The caterpillar (or larva) feeds on the leaves of the host plant.  Eventually, the caterpillar, if a bird hasn’t eaten it, spins a cocoon.  When the time comes, the adult butterfly breaks out of the cocoon and starts the circle of life again.

What do birds look for in a tree?  Birds such as orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks like to nest in the uppermost parts of tall trees, while cavity nesters, such as chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers, owls, and bluebirds, use the lower levels.  Most important, though, you want to have a variety of insects available for birds to eat.  Oaks support more species of insects then any other plant, thus oaks provide more types of bird food than any other plant.  Native oaks include white oak (Quercus alba), bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), red oak (Quercus rubra), and black oak (Quercus velutina).  Oak trees take a decade to produce acorns, so be patient.  Oak acorns provide a regular food supply for wood ducks, wild turkeys, blue jays, nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, and woodpeckers.  Returning migrants, such as warblers, vireos, and tanagers, flock to oak trees for the insects the trees harbor in the spring.

When we think of willows, we think of weeping willows, which are non-natives trees.  Native willows include the black willow (Salix nigra) and the sandbard willow (Salix interior).  Willows attract many butterflies and butterfly caterpillars, including commas, viceroys, red-spotted purples, and mourning cloaks.  Black willows are also excellent hosts for several wood-boring beetles that attract woodpeckers that eat the larvae of these beetles all winter long. 

Native wild cherries include black cherry (Prunus serotina), chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), and pin cherry ( Prunus pensylvanica).  The caterpillars of the swallowtail and the red-spotted purple butterfly feed on cherry tree leaves.  Cherry trees also provide fruits for birds, like grouse, pheasant, evening and rose-breasted grosbeaks, bluebirds, robins, and thrushes for weeks in late summer.

As gardeners, we want to design our landscape to attract insects.  Once we start to understand and see for ourselves the workings of the food chain in our own gardens, planting for a continuous bug buffet is the most natural way to garden.  Without insects, there is no food chain, without the food chain, there is no life.  So think about planting an oak, willow, or cherry tree and see the food chain at work up close and personal in your own back yard.