The robin flitted among the blueberries, while nearby a monarch alighted on the echinacea growing nearby. A woman walked through the garden picking raspberries and observing the habitat she had created. With increasing development, many birds, bees, and butterflies face challenges in finding food and nesting areas. Likewise, with increasing food prices, many people are facing similar challenges. However, there are a large number of native plants that can be food for both wildlife and people and that will be this year’s focus for the annual wildlife gardening article.
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
This flower grows 26-36 inches tall and is a nectar source for many butterflies. It is native to Illinois, eastern Oklahoma, northeastern Texas central Louisiana, southern Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Its leaves can be used for a tea for congestion and sore throat.
Bee balm (Monarda didyma)
This flower grows 36-48 inches tall and is a favorite of bees. It is native throughout New England, New Jersey, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan and, as its name implies, is popular with several species of bees. Its leaves can also be made into a tea that a Native American remedy for congestion and sore throat. (Though food is this year’s focus, I did stretch it to include beverages).
Raspberry (Rubus odoratus)
It is a shrublike plant, which grows approximately five feet tall, and has rose purple flowers from June to September. It is native from Ontario to Nova Scotia south to Geogia, west to Alabama and north to Wisconsin.
Low blueberry (Vaccinium augustifolium)
The low blueberry grows two to five inches tall, needs sun, and can tolerate infertile, acidic, and rocky soil. It flowers from May to June and fruits from June to August. The berries are an important food for many types of birds and can be eaten raw or made into jellies and jams. It is native to Labrador, Newfoundland, and Manitoba, south to New Jersey and west to Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Minnesota. There is also the highbush blueberry (Vaccinum corymbosum), which grows up to 10 feet and would not be suited to a community garden, but will be fine in a larger space.
Common strawberry (Fragaria virginium)
It grows three to six inches tall and has white flowers from April to June and fruits in June. It is native throughout North America. Strawberries do spread, but I have successfully grown them in my community plot for the last few years. Since they are an early flowering species, they can also be a help to pollinators when there are only a few other plants in flower. The berries of the previous three suggestions are equally popular among both birds and people and birds can frequently beat their human neighbors to the harvest. If this is the case, it is possible to put netting over some for the gardener’s enjoyment and leave others for the feathered neighbors.
Fox grape (Vitis labrusca)
This is a high climbing vine with dull red or purplish black grapes. It would need a trellis or pole and also generally needs pruning in late winter.
Butternut squash (Curcurbita moschata)
This is a vine producing large yellow flowers and fruit in summer. It was one of the “three sisters” of Eastern Native Americans and the flowers are an important food source for the squash bee. The fruit can be baked and made into soups. (I have an excellent recipe for butternut soup). It is a large vine and does take some space, but it can be done in a community plot.
Running serviceberry (Amelanchier stonifera)
This is a small shrub which grows approximately five feet tall and has white flowers and purplish black fruit in early summer. It is native to Quebec, Maine, south to North Carolina and West to Iowa and Michigan. There is also the western serviceberry (Amelachier ainifolia), which is native to western Minnesota and northern California.
Common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
This is a tree with whitish flowers and bright green fruit turning pale orange in autumn. The fruit can be used for puddings, cakes and drinks. Native Americans also made persimmon bread and stored the dried fruit. It is native to Connecticut, south to Florida and west to Kansas and Texas.
American hazelnut (Corylus americana)
This is a small tree or shrub which grows approximately ten feet tall and flowers in early spring. The nuts attract ground birds including grouse and the northern bobwhite. It is native to Maine and Saskatchewan south to Georgia and Louisiana.
Wild sweet crabapple (Malus coronara)
This is a tree which grows to 30 feet and has white flowers and yellowish green fruit. It is native to New York south to northern Geogia, northern Alabama and west to Illinois, Missouri, and Michigan.
A large number of bees, butterflies, and birds are facing threatened or endangered status due to reduced habitat. However, providing sources of fruit, berries, nectar, and cover in backyards, on balconies, and community gardens can provide much needed food and nesting sites for many of our colorful, buzzing, and feathered neighbors. In addition, as many human households are also facing food challenges, growing native herbs and fruit can be a benefit to the dinner table as well as creating connections with our backyard denizens.