Looking to spruce up your yard this spring? Try growing more native plants – plants that naturally occur in the area where you live. Gardening with native plants has many benefits: They’re beautiful, they’re already adapted to your precipitation and soil conditions, and they don’t need artificial fertilizers or pesticides. Of course the biggest benefit might be that native plants are great for birds and other wildlife.
Native plants provide nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. They provide nourishing seeds and irresistible fruits for your feathered neighbors, and they offer places to nest and shelter from harm. They’re also a critical part of the food chain—native insects evolved to feed on native plants, and by and large, backyard birds raise their young on insects, explains Douglas Tallamy, the author of Bringing Nature Home. Take the Carolina Chickadee: A single clutch of four to six chicks will gobble up more than 9,000 caterpillars in the 16 days between when they hatch and when they leave the nest. So thriving insects mean thriving birds.
The key is to pick the right plants for your area. Here are 10 great plants to get you thinking about the possibilities—but remember, there are thousands of native plants out there. Search Audubon's native plants database to create a list of plants native to your area and get connected to local native plant resources. You'll also find even more resources listed further down the page.
Native Flowering Plants:
Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea spp.)
Coneflowers are a tried-and-true garden staple, and wildlife are drawn to them, too.
Birds that love them: These beautiful blooms attract butterflies and other pollinators during the summer and provide seeds for goldfinches and other birds in the fall.
Where they’re native: Some of these species, like Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea pallida, are great native plants to grow in the plains states. Coneflowers grow well most places, so check for the species native to your region.
Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)
Sunflowers may signify loyalty and longevity for people, but they mean food for many birds.
Birds that love them: Birds often use the sunflower seeds to fuel their long migrations.
Where they’re native: Helianthus ciliaris in the Southwest and central United States and Helianthus angustifolius in the eastern United States produce seeds in bulk.
Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)
Milkweed is best known for hosting monarch butterfly caterpillars, but they attract loads of insects that are great for birds, too. Bonus: the flowers are gorgeous.
Birds that love them: Some birds, like the American Goldfinch, use the fiber from the milkweed to spin nests for its chicks. Goldfinches, and other birds, also use the downy part of the seed to line their nests.
Where they’re native: It's likely one or more species of milkweed is native to your area—try butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in hot dry areas, while swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is great in wet areas or gardens.
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
The cardinal flower’s bright red petals resemble the flowing robes worn by Roman Catholic cardinals, after which it was named.
Birds that love them: While few insects can navigate the long tubular flowers, hummingbirds feast on the cardinal flower’s nectar with their elongated beaks.
Where they’re native: This moisture-loving plant is native across large portions of the country, including the East, Midwest, and Southwest.
Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
One of the top most well-behaved vines to plant in your garden, the multitudes of red tubular flowers are magnets for hummingbirds.
Birds that love them: This vine’s nectar attracts hummingbirds while many birds like Purple Finches and Hermit Thrushes eat their fruit. During migration, Baltimore Orioles get to the nectar by eating the flowers.
Where they’re native: Trumpet honeysuckle grows natively in the northeast, southeast, and midwest portions of the United States. The sweetly scented Japanese honeysuckle is actually an exotic invasive—but if you swap it with native trumpet honeysuckle, you’ll attract plenty of birds.
Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinqefolia)
The Virginia creeper, also known as woodvine, may be best known for its similarity to poison ivy, but its leaves are harmless to your skin. While people may intentionally avoid it, many birds rely on its fruit during the winter.
Birds that love them: It’s a key food source for fruit-eating birds, such as mockingbirds, nuthatches, woodpeckers and blue jays.
Where they’re native: Parthenocissus vitacea, a related species known as thicket creeper, is native to the American West while Parthenocissus quinqefolia can be found in the Great Plains and eastern United States.
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
Showy flowers and fruit make buttonbush a popular choice in native gardens and along pond shores.
Birds that love them: In addition to beautifying a pond, they also provide seeds for ducks and other waterfowl. Their magnificent flowers also attract butterflies—and other pollinators.
Where they’re native: The buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, is native to the wetlands of California and the eastern half of the United States.
Elderberry (Sambucus spp.)
Elderberry is a versatile plant that has been used to make dye and medicine by people across the United States, as well as being a showy shrub for the landscape.
Birds that love them: Its bright dark blue fruits (which we use for jam) provide food for many birds within its range, including the Brown Thrasher and Red-eyed Vireo, and dozens of other birds.
Where they’re native: Sambucus canadensis is native to most of the eastern United States, while red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is found in most states except for those south of Nebraska and those along the Gulf of Mexico.
Oak (Quercus spp.)
From southern live oaks to California black oaks, these large beautiful trees are a favorite for many people across the country—not to mention the great summer shade they provide. These trees are also an integral part of the food chain, so planting just one really helps your yard’s diversity.
Birds that love them: Similarly, many species of birds use the cavities and crooks of these trees for nesting and shelter. Birds are also drawn to the abundance of insects and acorns that are found on oaks—to learn more, check out Doug Tallamy’s work.
Where they’re native: If you want to plant an oak, be sure to plant one native to your area, such as the shumard oak in the Southeast or the Oregon white oak in the Pacific Northwest.
Dogwoods (Cornus spp.)
Nothing says spring quite like a dogwood full of newly-bloomed flowers.
Birds that love them: Cardinals, titmice, and bluebirds all dine on the fleshy fruit of dogwood trees.
Where they’re native: If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you can grow native Cornus nuttallii and for those in the eastern United States, choose either the Cornus alternifolia or the Cornus florida.
By incorporating native plants into your landscape, you’re creating a sanctuary that benefits wildlife.
The 10 plants listed are a great starting point—they’re easy to grow, they’re great for birds, and most can be found at nurseries. To find species that are native to right where you live, search Audubon's native plants database. You can create a list of plants native to your area and get connected to local native plant resources. Explore the Plants for Birds pages to learn more.
Other Online Resources
Bringing Nature Home…Doug Tallamy
The Living Landscape….Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke
The American Woodland Garden….Rick Darke
Gardening and Propagating Wildflowers, Growing and Propagating Native Trees and Shrubs….William Cullina
Additional reporting by Shannon Palus and Tessa Stuart.