This is the second part of a series I am writing on creating a wildlife-friendly and edible garden. The first part is on Trees, and you can read it here. The same Basic Considerations for trees apply to shrubs:
- Choose shrubs indigenous to your region, because they fulfill the needs of native animals better than non-native plants.
- Consider soil type, moisture, and climate preferred by each plant.
- Think beyond berries and birds, and consider nectar, leaves, buds, and twigs as food for insects and mammals, as well as for birds.
- Provide both soft mast (fruits, berries) and hard mast (nuts).
Some of my favorite resources for planning an edible wildlife garden of native plants:
And be sure to consult several authoritative sources before consuming any wild plant.
10 Shrubs for a Wildlife-Friendly, Edible Landscape
Hard mast (nuts)
1. Shrubby Oaks
All oaks are of tremendous wildlife value, and if you don’t have space for the familiar large oak trees, you might consider oaks that grow as shrubs. Native shrub oaks in the eastern US include Quercus ilicifolia (bear oak) and Quercus prinoides (dwarf chinkapin oak). In the west, there is Quercus gambelii (gambel oak) and Quercus dumosa (California sage oak). Be sure to look up the native geographic range, and the site and soil requirements of any shrubby oak that you are considering.
- Acorns of oak shrubs are prized by many of the same animals (both mammals and birds) that eat acorns from oak trees. But because acorns on shrubs are closer to the ground, they are more available to terrestrial mammals and birds of the shrub layer. Exact species which use oak shrubs depend on which oak and which geographic area.
- Birds that nest in the shrub layer might choose oak shrubs to raise their young.
- Oaks are a superb choice for supporting native insects. Larvae of a huge variety of insects use them, depending on species. For example, Q. ilicifolia is the larval host plant for the sleepy duskywing moth and the eastern buckmoth.
- Acorns are high in protein, carbohydrates, and fat, providing excellent nutrition.
- Acorns are edible by humans after the tannins have been leached out. The nut meats can be ground into a meal or flour, and used for breads, muffins, etc.
- In large quantities, leaves and acorns are toxic to cattle, horses, sheep, and goats, due to the high level of tannic acid. And, once they develop a taste for acorns, some animals may seek them out.
- Acorns are an excellent food for pigs.
While some of the European and Asian hazels grow as trees, the two hazels native to North America grow as shrubs. The nuts are outstanding for both human and wildlife consumption. You can forage for wild nuts, but if you want to eat a lot of them, it’s best to plant some in your yard and leave the wild ones for wildlife.
You can plant the native Corylus americana (American hazelnut) or Corylus cornuta (beaked hazelnut), or you can plant hybrids of American and European species. The latter produce larger nuts, but they are not as large as the European hazelnuts you see in the grocery store. In proper site conditions and good sun exposure, hazels grow rapidly and produce well. Shrubby hazels make an excellent hedgerow.
- Many mammals covet the sweet and delicious nuts.
- Larger birds which can open the shells, such as jays and woodpeckers, relish the nuts.
- Grouse eat the buds and catkins.
- Woodcock and other small animals use hazels for cover.
- Corylus species are an excellent food source for bees. While the plants are actually pollinated by wind, bees enjoy the pollen.
- The nuts are sweet and delicious, husks are easy to remove when dry, and shells are easy to crack.
The southeastern United States is home to a shrub form of chestnut, Castanea pumila. It goes by the common names dwarf chestnut and eastern chinkapin (not to be confused with chinkapin oak). It is less sensitive to the chestnut blight which has ravaged the American chestnut tree. However, it is declining, probably as a result of habitat loss. While foraging for the nuts might hasten the decline, growing this plant helps slow the decline, and provides great food for both wildlife and yourself. It grows rapidly and makes a good hedgerow.
- Many mammals and large birds, such as turkeys, jays, and woodpeckers favor the nuts.
- Deer browse the foliage.
- It provides excellent cover for wildlife.
- Larval host plant for the Orange-tipped oakworm moth.
- The sweet nuts are small but delicious.
Soft Mast (berries)
Some of the viburnums, such as V. lentago (nannyberry), V. prunifolium (black haw), and V. trilobum (highbush cranberry) have berries taken by wildlife and edible for people. You will have to do some research to learn which, if any, edible viburnum grows in your location. All 3 of the ones I mentioned grow wild in my area of Massachusetts.
- Berries of most viburnums are not top menu items for birds, but some, such as highbush cranberry, persist through winter, providing emergency nutrition when food is scarcest.
- Viburnums are larval host plants for spring azure and common blue butterflies.
- Be aware that although American cranberry bush has sweet berries, its European look alike (V. opulus) has extremely bitter berries. Unfortunately, some nurseries sell V. opulus as American cranberry bush.
- Berries have different uses, depending on species.
ChokeBerries (not to be confused with chokeCHerries), are excellent wild fare for both wildlife and humans. They are attractive and underutilized in the landscape. You will find a description of the three Aronia species and information on foraging for them, here. They reach only about 8 feet in height, and spread less than that. Flowers, berries, and fall foliage are all attractive. There are a great choice for a living fence, in moist locations.
- Birds such as waxwings, various thrushes, thrashers, catbirds, and grouse eat the berris. Grouse also eat the buds.
- Spring pollinators value the flowers. The red chokeberry in my yard is always popular with buzzing pollinators when in bloom.
- ChokeBerries are edible without any processing, but they’re better for juicing. I find whole berries mildly sweet, but I dislike the texture. For a more thorough description of edibility and nutritional value, read this.
Rose hips, the fruit of roses, are enjoyed by a wide variety of wildlife, but people prefer large hips. That makes Rosa rugosa, with its voluptuous hips, an enticing plant for the yard. But don’t plant it. It is not native, it’s known to be invasive in some areas, and will likely earn the status of “invasive” in additional locations. Forage for R. rugosa hips when you find them, but plant native species. Native roses include:
- Rosa carolina (pasture rose)
- Rosa palustris (swamp rose)
- Rose virginiana (Virginia rose)
- Rosa blanda (meadow rose)
- Most species form dense thickets which are excellent cover for birds and small mammals, and nesting habitat for some birds.
- Waxwings, mockingbirds, and thrushes are particularly fond of the hips, and many other species take them.
- Valuable to native bees, especially bumblebees.
- Hips are used for jellies and jams. Frost improves the flavor of hips. Seeds should not be consumed.
- Flower petals are edible, and can be used for jams, jellies, desserts, candies, etc.
- Leaves and young shots of some species are edible.
- Buds can be pickled and eaten.
- For additional information on edibility and uses, read this.
These familiar straggling shrubs hardly need mentioning, but they are so valuable to both wildlife and humans that they deserve it. Choose from many varieties of blackberry and raspberry, as well as thimbleberry and dewberry. Do some research and find out which do best in your region.
- Bramble berries are a favorite of many birds, including woodpeckers, flycatchers, catbirds, thrashers, thrushes, orioles, grackles, tanagers, grosbeaks, cardinals, grouse, turkey, bobwhites, pheasants, and more. Mammals love them, too.
- The dense, usually thorny, thickets provide excellent cover and nesting habitat for many birds and small mammals.
- Berries are sweet and delicious. Eat them raw, or use them for many salads and desserts.
- Dried leaves of some can be used for tea.
Elderberries (Sambucus species) are enjoying increasing popularity for their health benefits and possible medicinal properties. Where they are common, they are a great favorite of foragers. But if you want to harvest them in quantity, why not plant them in your own yard? There are a number of species, so choose one that is native to your region and grows well in the site conditions of your land.
- Berries are a great favorite of some mammals and many, many birds.
- Shrubby growth provides good cover and nesting sites for certain birds, such as the yellow warbler, gray catbird, and American goldfinch.
- Deer browse the twigs and leaves.
- Native pollinators are attracted to Sambucus species for pollination and/or nesting.
- Berries have long been used to make jellies, jam, pies, ice cream, wine, and syrups.
- Edible flowers are sometimes used for cordials and fritters.
- Read more about elderberries and their uses here.
Like the brambles, the ever popular blueberries hardly need mentioning, but their superior value warrants it. There are many different species. Some thrive in dry upland soils, and others prefer moist soil. Some are tall, and some are low growing, so there is something that fits just about any site. Choose a native species indigenous to your region, or choose from a multitude of cultivated varieties. Our highbush blueberries provide endless summer entertainment for our chickens, who enjoy jumping up for the juicy delicacies.
- These are at least as popular as elderberries, among wild mammals and birds.
- Birds, especially smaller species, prefer the small berries of wild blueberries, over the large berries of cultivated varieties.
- Blueberry blossoms are very popular among native pollinators, particularly bumblebees.
- Deer and rabbits browse the leaves and twigs.
- The sweet berries are wonderful by the handful, and often used in salads, desserts, and other baked goods. They can be dried or frozen for long term storage.
This graceful and aromatic shrub of subtle beauty is underutilized in the wildlife garden and edible landscape. It is common in the wild, but seldom noticed by the untrained eye. The clusters of tiny yellow flowers are so easy to miss in early spring, and the delightful scent is not released unless you bruise a leaf or scratch a twig. Lindera benzoin is native to the eastern United States, and I do not know if there is a related species in the west.
- Various species of thrush are particularly fond of the berries, and many other species take them.
- Larval host plant of the beautiful spicebush swallowtail and eastern swallowtail butterflies, as well as the promethea moth.
- A delicious tea can be made with leaves and twigs.
- Dried berries can be ground to a powder and used as a spice.
- If you want to use spicebush berries, grow spicebush in your yard, or harvest only a very small quantity from the wild. This plant usually does not fruit heavily.
Serviceberries and Hawthorns were covered in a previous post, 15 Trees for a Wildlife-Friendly, Edible Landscape. However, some species of hawthorn and serviceberry grow as shrubs, so you can still consider them if you don’t have space for trees.
- Youse, Howard R. A Taxonomic Study of Sixty Pollen Grains Collected by Honey Bees. Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science, 2013.
- Plant Sources for Butterfly Larvae
- Ladybird Johnson Plant Database
- DeGraaf, R.M. and Witman, G.M. 1979. Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Attracting Birds. University of Massachusetts Press.
- Thayer, Samuel. 2006. The Forager’s Harvest. Published by Forager’s Harvest.
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