Getting to Know Plants’ Wildlife Value

New and experienced wildlife gardeners alike have the delightful dilemma of deciding which plants to plant in order to attract birds and butterflies and other beautiful creatures. Plants are used in many different ways by wildlife, and some plants are extraordinary in how many species they serve. Some provide nectar or pollen or berries, and others serve as larval or adult food sources through their foliage, bark, and even roots. Some plants offer dense foliage that provide cover for wildlife or are ideal places to raise young. And yet others might do all of the above.

I often talk about the wildlife value of a plant. This term is relative — in nature, a plant that serves one species is equally important to a plant that serves many. But if you are starting out on a budget for your garden, know that there are plants that are very special in how much wildlife they support, and it can be quickly rewarding if you start out with a plant that attracts many different kinds of critters.

One of my favorites is Mexican Plum, Prunus mexicana. I call this small tree a perfect wildlife habitat plant because in one fell swoop it provides most of the necessary elements of a habitat. Its dense foliage is an excellent place for animals to hide in, and many birds build their nests there. It provides pollen and nectar with its flowers in the spring, its leaves are a larval food source for Tiger Swallowtails and different moths, and in the fall its fruits are consumed by birds and mammals. The plums themselves can even be thought of as a potential water source for some animals. The Mexican Plum also happens to be easy to grow and tolerates a range of soil types — always a plus in my Texas garden.

Another favorite is Coral Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, a native and well-behaved vine. It is a larval host for the Spring Azure butterfly and the Snowberry Clearwing hummingbird moth. Its berries attract finches and other birds, and its red tubular flowers provide nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, and insects. Wrens and other birds have even been known to nest in it.

How does one get to know more about what plants to choose? I’m a big fan of research, both online and in the community. You might want to start with your local nursery, particularly one that specializes in native plants, and talk with the staff there. Most regions have a variety of local clubs (often part of a larger organization) that offer lists of the best native plants for the local wildlife, including Audubon, your state’s Native Plant Society, butterfly/bee/amphibian groups, and more. One of my favorite online sources is the Wildflower Center plant database. And of course, there are some great suggestions right here at Beautiful Wildlife Garden!

What plants do you prize for their incredible wildlife value in your area?

Meredith O’Reilly gardens for wildlife in Austin, Texas, and writes about her garden adventures at Great Stems.

© 2010 – 2012, Meredith O’Reilly. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

Related Posts with Thumbnails


  1. says

    I second the suggestion of researching suitable plants for your own beforehand..the US is so varied ecologically there is no single cookie cutter approach that applies to American gardens as a whole….except…plant natives to your region and microclimate! Local native plant and wildlife gardening groups such as Wild Ones (
    are a great place to start…

    Thanks also for the info that the eastern Trumpet honeysuckle (lonicera sempervirens) is a host plant for spring azures, we planted one about 5 yrs ago and I have noticed more azures in the past year or two….yay!
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..Resurrecting the American Chestnut Tree

  2. Candy DeBerry, Ph.D. says

    The best source for info about wildlife value (to insects and birds) of Eastern natives is Doug Tallamy’s website and his book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. He has done the scientific research and has the data to support the rankings (and to show that native plants support as much as 35 times more insect biomass than exotic plants!)

  3. says

    Milkweed’s the classic–even without the monarchs, I find myself astonished at the tiny ecosystem that arises on a single milkweed plant, from the aphids to the milkweed beetles to the milkweed assassins preying on them. Amazing stuff. And I’m constantly pleased by some of the native viburnums, too–flowers in spring, berries in fall, cover in the middle…I suppose we could call the fact that deer think an arrowwood viburnum is candy a “wildlife value” although I’m not quite as excited by THAT. *grin*
    UrsulaV recently posted..Common Checkered Skipper

    • says

      I actually originally had milkweed in my post, believe it or not, for that very reason, but I took it out to shorten the post a little, and milkweed is typically more well known than the other ones I showed. At school, I like to show milkweed to the kids because of the predator-prey relationships that are always present among and on the plants, plus you can see a variety of life stages of all sorts of species. Science teachers have to love it.

  4. Chris McLaughlin says

    We have Lonicera species here in California, as well…LOVE the Spring Azure butterfly – she’s one of my favorites! Nice article !

  5. says

    This is good advice that goes along with just about any type of new garden or one being planted on a budget. Getting the most bang for your buck is a matter of research and planning.

    While I haven’t planned for a wildlife garden, I sure have a lot of it. In my yard, I have some sage which attract thousands of bees at certain times of the year depending on the weather. I didn’t do it intentionally for the bees but it’s a nice plus since I love the sound and to watch them work.

    Along with that, over the last 3 years in this new home, we have one part of our yard with a few large Ash trees which is gaining more and more popularity as a roost for Mourning Dove. I like their presence and coos. They’re a little messy and in some areas so much that it kills the lawn grass. I guess it’s going to have to be a trade off but may get to be too much in a few years. I guess we’ll see in a few years if raising Dove attracts Hawks and other predators. Not sure if that would still be called wildlife gardening.

    Thanks for the info. Another good point to add to the checklist of designing and building gardens.


  1. […] Getting to Know Plant’s Wildlife Value, by Meredith O’Reilly, shows us how to get the most value for wildlife when choosing native plants. Welcome to the newest Beautiful Wildlife Gardener from Texas. Follow @grstems, and she’s brand new to twitter so help her out please! […]

  2. […] It’s hard to believe that a stellar tree like this Southeastern USA native  isn’t offered by more nurseries.   They’re beautiful and  easy care  trees;  they have adapted to regional conditions;  they’re better options for gardeners  who seek   spring flowers  and fall color than the invasive Pyrus calleryana and Euonymous alata; and, they have great wildlife value. […]

  3. […] exotic plants  were my standard of beauty.  When I discovered the beauty, practicality and the wildlife value of native plants,  my  gardening  standards changed.   Nowadays, beds mulched with leaves;  […]

  4. […] plants. I’m talking about plants native to a region here — not only do they have direct wildlife value, but they are key to a balanced, healthy ecosystem. Mexican Plum, shown above, is one of my […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge