Selecting native plant species for home gardens has become a popular trend over the last decade. It’s a shift in the way we think about our residential garden designs. Most gardeners believe ‘traditional English plants’ are the only flowers for their flowering beds. However, times are-a-changing. Native plant species are making an appearance in many home gardens, either in full or as part of the garden design. Native plant species are a great way to help restore the natural environment and improve local ecosystems, one garden-at-a-time.
Native plant species create the perfect habitat for a wide range of garden creatures including songbirds, hummingbirds, butterflies, native bees and wasps, and flying insects. We forget native plants also provide habitat for caterpillars, ladybugs, aphids, ants, toads, and frogs who also need native plants to survive and thrive. Native plants tend to be very low maintenance, have little or no diseases, and once established, require little water and feeding.
Songbirds, caterpillars, native plant species and their relationship
Let’s talk about songbirds. Many of us want songbirds in our backyards. Songbirds are fun to watch, to learn about, and their flitting and fluttering around are ‘free entertainment’. During the pandemic, birdwatching become the number one ‘new activity’ for families to do, together. Songbirds provided a great distraction from our everyday stay-at-home lives.
Songbirds, caterpillars, and native plants have a symbiotic relationship. They need each other to survive. If we take one piece of this trio away, the others fail. Here’s how it works.
- Caterpillars are the larvae of butterflies and moths which feed almost exclusively on foliage of native plants in the spring and summer months. As caterpillars grow and fatten up, they become a yummy food source for songbirds (caterpillars are very high in protein so I’m told).
- Songbirds rely on the nectar and pollen from native wildflowers as a food source.
- Songbirds utilize the leave and stem debris of native plants to build and repair their nests.
- Native flowering plants need birds as pollinators. Birds carry pollen from one flower to another as they flit-about the garden which sparks fruit and seed production.
- In late summer, the ripe fruit of native trees and shrubs are a steady source of food for migrating songbirds and birds who stay in winter. Birds consume this ripe fruit which are packed-full of seeds. The fruit seeds pass through the bird’s digestive system and are distributed as they fly about. This distributed seed imbeds in soil where it starts to germinate, which in turn, produces new plants.
- All this fruit and seed eating creates a lot of poop. Okay, not great to think about but, bird droppings are very high in nitrogen and phosphorus – you’ll just have to take my word for this one – and nitrogen and phosphorus are plant food. If we look at the ‘bird-seed-poop loop’, we can appreciate bird poop in our gardens. Soil insects and bugs love bird poop. They just eat it up, turning it into more poop which is taken up by plants as food. Think of bird poop as nature’s-very-own-natural-fertilizer.
It’s all just-one-big-old-love-loop
If you want songbirds in your yard, you need to attract caterpillars. If you want to attract caterpillars, you need to plant the species that caterpillars like to feed on, live in, and hide in.
Be okay with a bit of unsightly foliage
You have to be okay with the knowledge some plants will not look ‘absolutely perfectly manicured’ throughout the growing season. There will be times, particularly in the spring, when the foliage of deliciously, yummy native plants will have unsightly holes from caterpillar chewing and eating. Be assured, most plants with spring leaf damage will re-leaf during the summer and the new foliage will help hide leave damage.
If you want songbirds in your yard, you need to attract caterpillars
Caterpillars for breakfast, caterpillars for lunch, and caterpillars for dinner!
One songbird can eat over 300 caterpillars per day or on-average about one caterpillar every minute. Caterpillars are high in protein and are a good source, and in many cases the only source, of nutrients for baby birds in their first few days. If you want songbirds and their babies, you need caterpillars!
Tips to attract songbirds and caterpillars to your yard
- Don’t be too quick to cut back your gardens in spring. Many songbirds use winter debris to build (or repair) nests in the spring. Native grasses provide the perfect building material for nests. Think of the dry, dead foliage of native grasses much like a 2-by-4, just the right building material for a new nest or as bedding for eggs. There is nothing more fascinating than watching a bird select and then try to fly away with a very long, blade from a native grass.
- Leave wildflowers and native grasses to stand over the winter as the seed heads are a good source of food (seed) for winter songbirds.
- Caterpillars need leaf mulch or low-growing plants to hide out in during the day and feed on at night. Having a bit of leaf mulch – the leaf litter from plants and trees – is a good thing. Instead of cleaning your gardens to bare ground or spreading thick bark mulch, try leaving leaf litter or planting low-growing spreading wildflowers to attract caterpillars.
- Reduce the amount of bark mulch you put on your gardens. You only need about one or two inches of bark mulch in a native garden in order to protect new plantings and give them a good start. After the plantings fill in, you don’t need to mulch. Let garden and tree debris be your mulch. This will reduce the amount of time you spend cleaning your gardens (bonus!) and save you money.
- I don’t clean up my gardens in the fall. Call me lazy or call me crazy. I just know caterpillars need the tall stems and stalks of wildflowers and grasses to create a safe place to pupate in fall, and I know some caterpillars pupate in ground litter. Unless a plant is diseased, I don’t bother with fall cleanup or even leaf raking. I’m good to leave my garden cleanup until the warm, sunny days of May to give caterpillars a fighting chance to over-winter. Even then, I only take away the taller stocks of native grasses (cut to about 12 inches from the ground) and cut and drop any wildflower stocks (I cut the wildflower stocks into pieces about 3 inches in length and drop them in the garden).
- No spray needed. Typically, non-native or hybrid plants need more care and attention than native plants. Native plants have little or no diseases. If native plants attract caterpillars, it’s because we have selected plants to attract caterpillars. Native plants are hosts (or salad bar if you like) for many moth caterpillars.
Native plants to attract moth caterpillars
Caterpillars are nature’s hotdog for birds. Not all birds eat caterpillars however for those who do, many like prefer moth to butterfly lava. Moth caterpillars are much more edible and yummier than butterfly caterpillars in the bird world. If you are looking to attract chickadees, northern flickers, sparrows, warblers, woodpeckers, swallows, grosbeak, blue jays, northern cardinal, and titmice you need moth caterpillars in your gardens.
Select native plant species for butterflies and moths to lay their eggs, feed, and grow. Give any of these a try!
From ‘Nature’s Best Hope’ by Doug Tallamy
Botanical Name Common Name Butterflies and Moths Host Plants
Acer rubrum Red Maple 300 species of caterpillars
Amelanchier canadensis Serviceberry 124 species of caterpillars
Rosa spp. Rose species 135 species of caterpillars
Vaccinium spp. Blueberry 294 species of caterpillars
Aronia melanocarpa Black Chokeberry 29 species of caterpillars
Quercus spp. Oak species 557 species of caterpillars
Spirea latifolia Meadowsweet 89 species of caterpillars
Solidago spp. Goldenrod species Over 100 species of caterpillars
Gardeners play a key role in restoring lost habitat of native host plants for many butterflies and moths. If you want songbirds in your yard, you need to attract caterpillars for birds to feed on. Happy Gardening!