For the Birds
I know from experience in chatting with many of you that birding is as popular as pollinator gardening, biking, and pickleballing (did I just invent a new word?). As most of you know, we live in the Atlantic Flyway—the migrating birds’ expressway along the Atlantic coastline. This provides southern Delaware with amazing opportunities to see and hear numerous bird species traveling the Flyway as well as enjoying those that call our region home all year long.
These birds must make the long trip while feeding along the way. One of the foods they seek out most are the berries of our native shrubs and trees. So in this column, we’ll take a look at some of the most sought-after species.
Let’s start with the shrub that is by far the most beneficial in terms of nutrients and energy for birds, Virburnum dentatum, the arrowwood viburnum. It offers the most protein and fat of any berry, helping the birds immensely with their long journey.
It can grow up to 10 feet tall, however, smaller cultivars, like Blue Muffin, exist. This native shrub blooms in summer with showy, white flowers changing to bright blue berries in the fall. It prefers full sun but can tolerate light shade. Arrowwood viburnum can be grown as a hedge and is fairly fast-growing. Its name is derived from the straight stems that were used by Native Americans to make the shafts of their arrows.
I’ve mentioned winterberry (Ilex verticillata) numerous times throughout the years. It is one of my all-time favorite native shrubs. It’s a deciduous holly, meaning it loses its leaves in autumn. However, its bright red berries persist through winter and are a good resource for birds during a time when food is hard come by. Male and female parts are on separate plants, so you need at least one male in the vicinity to pollinate the females. The females produce all the berries, so make sure at the nursery which one you are buying.
Winterberries bloom in summer and fruit in the autumn. They prefer full sun but can tolerate partial shade. They can also grow rather large (up to 15 feet), but smaller compact varieties are available like Little Goblin or Berry Sprite. Winterberries can also tolerate wet areas and are perfect for rain gardens. I like to place them in front of evergreens in the landscape so that the berries really pop against the green background.
Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is another great multi-purpose shrub. It blooms in spring and has exceptional red fall color followed by black fruit that persists long into winter. It can grow up to six feet tall and tends to colonize—they spread by suckers and can form large masses easily. This makes it ideal for wildlife habitat. Their glossy leaves are mostly pest-resistant, making it low-maintenance as well. But keep in mind—as I have mentioned many times before—all gardens require some maintenance. There are no no-maintenance gardens.
I’m going to end with a non-native plant, Pyracantha or firethorn. This plant is native to southern Europe and the name comes from the Greek words, pyr or fire, and akantha or thorn. The bright orange-crimson berries are abundant, and the stems are full of stiff thorns. Firethorn can be used an impenetrable hedge or even espaliered onto a wall in tight spaces or small gardens. It takes to pruning extremely well. Firethorn prefers moist well-drained soils but can tolerate tough conditions and is even salt tolerant. Birds are attracted to its fruit, but deer avoid it, most likely due to the spiny thorns.
I hope you include one or two of these shrubs in your own landscapes and help provide our feathered friends with a little more energy to make their arduous journey along the Atlantic Flyway. Providing resources like food and habitat will ensure your birding activities are successful and plentiful.
Have a wonderful holiday season, and let’s garden together! ▼
Eric W. Wahl is Landscape Architect at Pennoni Associates, and President of the Delaware Native Plant Society.