Want birds and butterflies? Plant native shrubs!
Updated: Mar 14, 2023
When it comes to the curb appeal of our houses and other buildings, the difference between starkly naked and softly clothed is the shrubs. What is a shrub, anyway? According to famous bird expert David Allen Sibley, “If you can walk under it, it’s a tree; if you have to walk around it, it’s a shrub.” Other than being multi-stemmed and relatively short, a shrub is pretty much the same as a tree and therefore provides the same environmental benefits, albeit to a smaller degree. And the difference between a native shrub and a non-native one is that the former will not only beautify a property but will turn it into a living landscape that supports the butterflies and birds.
Many people are looking at their yards and at public land and realizing that a lot of the space is being wasted. Turf grass has its advantages for certain purposes, such as providing a place to walk or play sports, but as a non-native plant, it does nothing for the ecosystem and requires a lot of input to maintain. Chipping away at the lawn with native shrubs can quickly cover the ground at a very low cost. Beyond the initial watering to get them established, they will require little or no maintenance from then on.
For small spaces, there are some native shrubs that naturally stay short, such as Shrubby Saint John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum) with its bright yellow flowers. There are also smaller cultivars of larger shrubs, such as Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) with its red berries that persist into January until they finally soften up and become a food source for hungry birds. If you use shrubs whose ultimate height fits the space you have in mind, the yearly shearing task will be eliminated. These and many other native shrubs are described on the Plant NOVA Natives website, which also points to places to buy them.
Some native shrubs grow tall enough to provide shade and can be an alternative to a small flowering tree. Common Witch-hazel is an example of that. The twigs have been used for divining rods, and the leaves get cute bumps in the shape of a witch’s hat. This native shrub is also magical for the flowers that are revealed in November after the leaves have fallen off. Those bumps, by the way, are caused by the reaction of the plant to a chemical injected by a tiny insect, the Witch-hazel Cone Gall Aphid. The cone-shaped bumps provide food and shelter to the female aphids as they lay their eggs.
Native shrubs can fill in the spaces between trees. From an environmental perspective, this arrangement is ideal, providing shelter and food at multiple heights, something we have lost in many of our woods to excessive browsing by deer. (In fact, although “Nature’s first green is gold,” if you look into the woods of Northern Virginia right now, there is a suspicious amount of green, much of which is due to invasive species such as Multiflora Rose and Asian Bush Honeysuckle. The leaves of invasive plants often emerge earlier and persist later than those of our native shrubs.) In our own yards, we can take steps to protect plants from deer and to swap out invasive shrubs for native ones and thus help support our local ecosystem.
The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) is collecting data on how many trees are planted in Northern Virginia as it works toward the goal of 600,000 by 2025. For this purpose, shrubs count as trees, so VDOF is encouraging everyone to report plantings of both. A reporting form can be found on the Plant NOVA Trees website.