Many birds and small mammals rely on the late summer and fall harvest of berries and seeds. The best winter-fruiting plants for wildlife are native trees and shrubs. Many of these same plants also serve as host plants for butterflies and provide nectar and pollen for many pollinators.
Birds that rely on insects in the summer often turn to berries when the weather turns cold. These include: woodpeckers, thrashers, quail, robins, waxwings, mockingbirds, bluebirds, grouse, catbirds, thrushes and even chickadees and titmice.
As a wildlife gardener, you can help wildlife have a year-round bounty by leaving the seed heads and berries intact, while still weeding or clearing some lower branches and leaves as needed. Seed-eating birds such as juncos and goldfinches enjoy the dried flower heads of asters, coneflowers and other native plants. Winter wildflower stalks also provide wildlife with places to seek refuge from storms and predators, and insects pass the winter in the dead stalks. These stalks and seed pods also add texture and visual interest on an otherwise barren landscape in a garden habitat.
Many of our favorite berries are native to certain regions of the country and a treat for humans and wildlife alike.
American Persimmons: Native from Connecticut to Iowa and Kansas south to Florida and Texas, American persimmon trees produce ornamental, purplish-orange fruits that hang on leafless branches in autumn.
Blackberries: The common, or Allegheny, blackberry grows in the Northeast and Midwest and south to Virginia and Missouri. California blackberry, also called dewberry, is native to the Pacific Northwest.
Blueberries: The highbush blueberry is native to the East and Midwest, other blueberry species are native to most of the United States and Canada.
Cranberries: northeastern, mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states and farther south in the Appalachian Mountains. Cranberries can be grown outside of a bog, but do benefit from moist soil and lots of compost.
Elderberries: Native throughout much of the United States and Canada.
Pawpaws: Producing the largest edible fruit of any North American native plant, pawpaw shrubs or small trees range from New York to Iowa and south from Florida to Texas.
Raspberries: The red raspberry is native to every region of the Lower 48 except the Deep South. The black raspberry ranges throughout the East as far south as Georgia and from North Dakota south to Colorado and Oklahoma. A number of nonnative brambles versions of this berry can become invasive, so grow only local species.
Salmonberries: Western salmonberry is a favorite of western hummingbird species from California to Alaska.
Serviceberries: Native to every contiguous U.S. state and Canadian province.
Prickly Pear Cactus: While also a Southwestern source for jam, its fruits are sought by many kinds of birds as well as by chipmunks and other mammals.
Many shrubs and trees provide year round beauty in the landscape while providing a needed food source for wildlife. Check the Native Plant Finder to find out which of these examples are native in your zip code.
American Beautyberry: A hardy four- to six-foot shrub has wand like branches lined with small purple berries, which can last until mid-winter. Native and a favorite of mockingbirds in much of the eastern United States.
Holly: Possum haw, a deciduous holly with abundant fruit, is found throughout the southeastern states. Another is winterberry, the hardiest of the hollies, flourishing in New England and eastern Canada. Its crimson berries improve with age and are popular with birds after a frost or two. Three other native hollies—American, yaupon and inkberry—are evergreen, providing protection from snow, rain and wind. Cluster female holly bushes with a male to ensure a good crop of fruit.
Sumac: 15 species occur in North America and have brilliant autumn color with large seed clusters. Seldom a first choice for birds, the plant's popularity soars by late winter when its fruit clusters are one of the few foods to be found. Note: Poison sumac is not really sumac and should be avoided as it's more closely related to poison ivy.
Saltbush: Several species of this desert shrub are native to the Southwest and California. Four-winged saltbush is a draw for quail and other wildlife. All of the saltbushes are drought tolerant and prefer well-drained soils and full sun.
Hackberry: Nearly 50 species of birds—ranging from roadrunners to titmice—eat this pea-sized fruit of the common hackberry. Related to the elm, this species is one of the few trees that thrives from the edge of the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic seaboard. Eventually reaching 40 to 60 feet tall in ideal situations, the common hackberry is durable and can be planted in urban areas and in poor soils.
Viburnum: Several native viburnums have berries that persist long into the winter. The fruits of some like possomhaw, change as temperatures drop from bright chartreuse to white, then pink, and finally to navy blue. It is native to the eastern coastal plain from Connecticut south to Florida and west to Texas. Highbush cranberry and nannyberry are two viburnums that grow across the northern United States.
Mountain Ash: Prefers cool, moist habitats. American mountain ash, usually a large shrub or small tree, ranges from eastern Canada south into the Appalachian Mountains. Sitka mountain ash is a western species. Both have showy white blossoms in the spring. After a few freeze-and-thaw cycles, the orange-red fruit attracts grosbeaks, grouse and waxwings.
Hawthorn: Dozens of species of hawthorns are found in the United States and Canada. With thorns and a tendency to clump into thickets, these small trees do double duty, providing secure nesting sites in summer and plentiful berries in winter. Cedar waxwings, ruffed grouse and fox sparrows all devour the plants' scarlet berries.
Bayberry: Most species of bayberry, including northern bayberry and Pacific wax myrtle, are vital to winter wildlife. In the Southeast, tree swallows and other birds swarm to southern wax myrtle if a late cold front strikes in spring. Wax myrtle is easy to grow, tolerating a wide range of conditions.
Red cedar, Juniper: found indry rocky fields from Canada to Florida) hold edible fruit during the cold months. They provide food for cedar waxwings, evening grosbeaks and many other birds Junipers also offer thick protective cover from predators and are important bird-nesting habitat. Prairie warblers often lay their eggs in nests tucked among juniper boughs. Yellow-rumped warblers overwinter in the same trees and feed on the fruits. They provide year-round shelter for birds, and their brightly colored fruits are popular with thrushes, mockingbirds and yellow bellied sapsuckers.