By Lori Athey, Habitat Outreach Coordinator
It is high summer now and my early summer flowers are looking a bit tired while the late summer/fall show has yet to begin. Nonetheless, there is a lot of wildlife activity in my garden right now. The pollinators are all over the Echinacea/Purple Coneflower, Coreopsis, Butterflyweed and Beebalm, tired-looking though they may be. However, the big story right now in the habitat garden is happening in the leaves: that giant munching sound you hear is the caterpillars feeding.
If you have read University of Delaware Professor Douglas Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home”, you already know that most (about 96%) of our songbird species need insects as part of their diet. Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) caterpillars are a large diet component of insectivorous birds. Summer is prime Lepidoptera season both for caterpillars and mature adults. Some of the best plants for supporting caterpillars, and thereby birds, also provide nectar and pollen for other pollinators, fruits or nuts for the birds, insects and other critters, shelter, nesting material and good places to raise babies.
So here are a few plant superstars to try in your wildlife garden:
Do you have room for a tree? Oak (Quercus species) trees are champion providers for native caterpillars at 518 species, but they also provide pollen in the spring for the bees, acorns in the fall and winter for squirrels and other critters, as well as shelter and places to raise babies for all sorts of birds, insects and mammals. Especially lovely specimens for your garden are the Willow Oak (Q. phellos), Scarlet Oak (Q. coccinea) and Swamp White Oak (Q. bicolor).
Do you have a native Cherry Tree? Our native cherries and plums (Prunus species) support 429 native caterpillar species. They also provide pollen and nectar in the spring and fruit in the summer enjoyed by both insects and birds. In addition to the Wild Black Cherry (P. serotina), others to try include the American Plum (P. americana), and for your beach home, the Beach Plum (P. maritima).
Don’t have room for a large tree? Try one of our native Dogwood (Cornus species) trees or shrubs. Not only do these plants offer pollen/nectar, fruits and foliage for the critters, they also are very attractive as landscape plants with lovely flowers, pretty fruit and attractive fall foliage color. Try our common Flowering Dogwood (C. florida), or one of the large shrubs such as Redosier Dogwood (C. serecia) or Silky Dogwood (C. amomum). Another superstar shrub is the Blueberry (Vaccinium species), which supports 286 species of caterpillars. Just like the others, it also provides nectar and pollen for the bees, and fruits relished by the birds but in a much smaller size, including dwarf selections. It too has pretty spring flowers, attractive fruit and lovely fall color. Plant several named varieties for the best fruit set.
We also have some superstar herbaceous flowering plants. Members of the Aster Family (Asteraceae) are standouts for supporting Lepidoptera caterpillars with their foliage, especially Goldenrods (Solidago), Asters (Eurybia, Symphyotrichum), perennial Sunflowers (Helianthus) and the butterfly favorite, Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium). Some are just beginning to bloom now while others will bloom in early and late fall, providing an important source of late-season pollen for the pollinators, as well as seeds for the birds.
So plant some of these superstars in your garden and then put out the all-you-can-eat buffet sign for your birds and critters!