University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
WILDLIFE NEED NATIVE PLANTS
S. White, Graduate Research Assistant
are learning more about the relationships between native plants and
wildlife. At the same time, home gardeners are learning
more about the benefits of native plants in their
landscapes and how to use them effectively.
Even professional landscapers are increasingly using native plants both
for their beauty and benefits to nature.
Many forms of wildlife depend on native plants for food and shelter;
plants often just don’t provide these.
native plant is one that has developed over hundreds or thousands of years
in a particular region and is a part of a natural system of plants and wildlife. The word “native” should always include a
region, such as native to New England. Only plants that were established in
this country prior to European settlement are generally considered native to
the United States.
recent history of land use in the United States has been destructive to natural
habitats. Scientists estimate that
humans have now altered over 95 percent of the natural landscape in the lower
48 states. Cities and suburbs now encompass 54 percent of our landscape, while
various forms of agriculture comprise 41 percent. In efforts to beautify our remaining
“natural” landscapes, we have introduced thousands of non-native plant species
from around the world. Some of these have
escaped into natural areas to compete with native plants—the so termed
“invasives” to avoid planting and to remove from our landscapes. Restoring native plants back into our landscapes
provides habitat for native wildlife, as well as other benefits for them.
Doug Tallamy introduced the gardening public to many benefits of native plants
with his best-selling book, Bringing
Nature Home, in 2007. Tallamy’s
research at the University of Delaware found that native landscaping increases
the number of birds and caterpillars (meaning more butterflies and moths) in suburbia.
In other words, by restoring native
plants to our landscapes, we also are restoring the birds, butterflies and
pollinators that rely on these plants to live and reproduce.
choosing a native over a non-native plant may provide numerous benefits to
wildlife. For example, Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa) is a small
from China that is commonly used as an ornamental landscape tree in the
U.S. No native insects feed on the Kousa Dogwood, therefore
it supports no native caterpillars, moths or butterflies. Flowering
Dogwood (Cornus florida) is a small flowering tree native to the warmer
parts of the eastern U.S. It has a
similar habit and form to the Kousa Dogwood, but supports a remarkable 117 species
of moth and butterflies.
are many options for incorporating native plants into a home landscape that are
both attractive to us and provide habitat to wildlife. In New England, consider using native
coniferous trees, such as White Cedar (Thuja
occidentalis) and Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga
canadensis), to provide winter shelter for the Golden Crowned Kinglet and
other birds that overwinter here. A
small grove of only a few trees of our native balsam fir (Abies balsamea) provides summer nesting and winter protection to
many small and large birds. Deciduous
nut and acorn producing trees, such as White Oak (Quercus alba), provide year-round food and shelter for a diversity
of insects, birds, and small mammals.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)
and Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
are examples of summer-fruiting native shrubs that are food sources for birds
and other wildlife. American Highbush
Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) and
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) are native shrubs
with winter-bearing fruit, which are important food sources for birds during
the winter months.
are drawn to tubular flowers for nectar, such as Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Native flowering perennials, such as New
England Aster (Aster novae-angliae)
and Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum),
are preferred nectar and pollen sources for native pollinators. These two perennials are important late in
the season when little else may be in flower. Other flowering perennials, such as Common Milkweed
(Asclepias syriaca) provide food
sources for leaf-eating caterpillars and the subsequent butterflies. In addition, the silky seeds of this
perennial in particular provide insulation in winter nests for small birds.
can find more information about gardening for wildlife at the National Wildlife
Federation’s website (www.nwf.org)
under their Outdoor Activities. The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department (www.vtfishandwildlife.com)
offers a 48-page guide titled “Backyard Wildlife Habitat in Vermont.” It can be
found on their website in the library under reports and documents. For
more information about what natives are best-suited for your region, visit the
Plant Native website (www.plantnative.org).