Setting a Winter Table for Wildlife

Rather than cutting down the native flowers in your garden, leave the seed heads and stalks standing until spring for birds to feast on

11-15-2011 // Janet Marinelli

American goldfinch by Brian HansenMANY PEOPLE THINK that once the last goldenrod has bloomed in fall, the wildflower spectacle is over for the year. However, the spent stalks and pods that are the remnants of summer’s blossoms have a stark, sculptural beauty, especially when silhouetted against a blanket of snow. And even when the riot of floral color has settled into a winter palette of muted browns and grays, many plants continue to serve wildlife.

Seed-eating birds such as juncos and goldfinches flock to the dried flower heads of asters, coneflowers and other native plants at a time when other food is scarce. Winter wildflower stalks also provide wildlife with places to seek refuge from storms and predators, and insects pass the winter in the dead stalks.

That’s why gardeners should ignore the conventional horticultural wisdom and hold off on the ritual known as fall garden cleanup. Do not deadhead wildflowers growing on your property. Instead, leave spent flower stalks until spring so that birds can feast on the seeds and insects can complete their life cycles and emerge when the weather warms. If you’re fanatical about removing the stalks after the first frost, you’ll not only be depriving birds of a source of winter sustenance but also disposing of some of next year’s pollinators and other beneficial insects that fertilize native plants and food crops and help keep garden pests in check.

Following are a few of the native wildflowers with seeds that birds will gobble up in winter:

Coneflowers: Nine native coneflower species grow from across the eastern and central Lower 48 to the Rocky Mountain states. The plants produce large flowers with sturdy orange-bronze “cones” at the center. During the cold months, goldfinches perch on or just below the blackened winter cones to pluck out the seeds.

Sennas: In many areas of the country, two native species—American senna and Maryland senna—bear a profusion of flowers in mid- to late-summer, followed by long, drooping seedpods. They provide shelter as well as chocolate-colored seeds that offer nutritious winter meals for songbirds and wild turkeys and other game birds. When in flower, sennas are magnets for certain native bees and butterflies. They also serve as host plants for cloudless sulfur butterfly caterpillars.

Round-head bush clover: Native to areas in the eastern two-thirds of the country, this plant is not particularly showy but it is robust and beneficial for wildlife. Its bronze seed heads decorate the winter garden and provide food for songbirds and game birds. Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin, calls round-head bush clover “an excellent late-season ‘emergency food’ for birds.” The plant grows 3 to 6 feet tall, he points out, “so the seeds are elevated above even deep snow cover that obscures lower-growing plants and their fruits.”

Other good winter seed sources: Depending on where you live, these may include asters, black-eyed Susans and late-blooming native sunflowers. Unless you have room in your garden for them to spread, avoid sunflower species that increase rapidly by rhizomes or that are prolific self-sowers.


Welcoming Wild Visitors

NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat™ program provides gardeners with information about native plants and the elements needed to create year-round outdoor spaces for birds and other animals.


New York writer Janet Marinelli’s most recent book is The Climate Conscious Gardener.

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