Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2014 Native Plant Awards

By Edie Parnum

Each year we select two native plants with exceptional ability to support wildlife. These plants will contribute significantly to the web of life in your yard. They host insects, offer nectar and pollen, and produce fruits, seeds, or nuts. Birds, butterflies, and other insects and animals will feed and prosper.  Most provide shelter and nesting places, too.  Our selections, all native to southeastern Pennsylvania, are easy to grow and readily available at native plant nurseries or native plant sales. Our Prime Plants make attractive additions to your landscape.  We offer awards in two categories: Trees and Shrubs and Perennials.

Our selections for the 2014 Prime Plants for Nature Awards are:

Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana                                                     

Wildlife Value: This small evergreen tree is a powerhouse for nature.  Yellow-rumped

Cedar Waxwing Eating Cedar Cones.  Photo © Howard Eskin.

Cedar Waxwing Eating Cedar Cones. Photo © Howard Eskin. Click to enlarge.

Warbler, Eastern Bluebird, and Northern Mockingbird are among the 54 species of birds that eat its long-persisting berry-like cones during the cold months.  Cedar Waxwings areso-named because they’re fond of cedar cones. The foliage hosts the Juniper Hairstreak butterfly, a vulnerable species in Pennsylvania, and several species of moths such as the Curve-lined Angle.  Song Sparrows and other

Juniper Hairstreak.  Photo courtesy of  and © Scott Pippen.

Juniper Hairstreak. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Pippen. Click to enlarge.

birds use the dense foliage for nesting places and shelter. Don’t be tempted to buy the similar-looking Leyland Cypress, a non-native that offers little for wildlife.

Growing Conditions: The Eastern Red Cedar tolerates a wide variety of soils and dry to moist growing conditions.  It prefers a sunny spot. These trees are either male or female.  Only the female trees produce fruits, but you’ll also need a male for pollination.

Screech Owl in Barb's Eastern Red Cedar. Photo  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Screech Owl in Barb’s Eastern Red Cedar. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

By planting at least three of these trees, you will enhance their wildlife value.    A row of cedars will provide dense shelter for birds. From the human perspective, the cedars can offer privacy. If planted on the north side of your house, they will create a windscreen.

Appearance: This evergreen has a pleasing conical shape.  It grows at a moderate rate (1-2 feet per year) and reaches 15-40 feet at maturity.

Eastern Red Cedar Trees.

Eastern Red Cedar Trees.







Short-toothed Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum muticum

Wildlife Value: This perennial is a magnet for pollinators.  Butterflies, bees, wasps, and flies are attracted to the copious nectar and pollen this lovely plant produces.  Because it

Red-banded Haristreeak nectaring on Mountain Mint.  Photo © Edie parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Red-banded Hairstreak nectaring on Mountain Mint. Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

flowers over a long period of time, it may host thousands of visits by pollinators each season.  With this plant in your yard, you can introduce children to pollination and teach them not to be afraid of bees and wasps.

Growing Conditions: Mountain Mint is a tough plant and will grow well in dry to moist soil in full to part-sun. Like other members of the mint family, it spreads but can easily be controlled, especially early in the growing season. It’s easy to transplant and share with other native plant gardeners.  This perennial is deer-resistant, too.

Appearance:  Mountain Mint grows to about 3-feet tall.  Although the numerous flowers are small and inconspicuous, the foliage is an attractive silvery grey.  The leaves complement other brightly colored flowers in the garden and in flower arrangements, too. This plant’s attractiveness is enhanced by the beautiful butterflies and other pollinating insects that visit.

Video © Barb Elliot.  Pollinators visiting Short-toothed Mountain Mint.  To see pollinator activity, click on symbol in lower right for full-screen view.   Then click play symbol in lower left.  May take several seconds to load.  Turn on speakers for audio.

Plant these and other Backyards for Nature Prime Plants, and nature will flourish abundantly in your yard.

Brown Gold: The Gift of Fall Leaves

By Barb Elliot

The brilliant yellow, orange, and red leaves are turning brown.  The beauty of autumn is fleeting and soon all the leaves will be on the ground.  This “leaf litter” is not trash.  The leaves nourish my garden.  They’re home to tiny creatures that are essential to my garden’s ecosystem.  These leaves are the gift of fall.

© Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

© Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Last year, instead of buying expensive mulch, I mulched with fallen leaves.  My trees and shrubs produce leaves abundantly and without charge.  Wherever possible, I left them to decompose where they fell.  I raked the rest from my lawn into my planting beds.   Also, I collected leaves from my neighbors and added them to my garden.  The leaves choked out the weeds, retained moisture, reduced erosion, and insulated the roots of my plants against winter cold.  A natural fertilizer, they added nutrients to my soil.  My plants grew remarkably well this year.

Leaf litter (or duff) offers exceptional benefits.  Myriad creatures live in the duff and play key roles in the healthy, diverse ecosystem of my yard.  Countless microorganisms and tiny invertebrates break down the leaves into basic elements that enrich the soil.  Bacteria and fungi accomplish the bulk of decomposition.  Invertebrates such as snails, slugs, and earthworms assist in the process and contribute to the web of life in the leaves and soil.

American Toads eat invertebrates in leaf mulch.  Photo by Jarek Tuszynski.  Wikimedia Creative Commons.

American Toads eat invertebrates in leaf mulch. Jarek Tuszynski photo, Wikimedia Creative Commons.  Click to enlarge.

Many, many arthropods — creatures with exoskeletons and jointed legs — such as sowbugs, spiders, daddy longlegs, millipedes, centipedes, protruans, and double-tails play an important role, too.  Spring-tails and mites, the most numerous, are so small they are rarely observed by gardeners.  Many beneficial insects such as crickets, beetles, flies, bees, wasps, and ants also live in the duff.  All of these creatures are food for other invertebrates or larger animals such as salamanders, toads, and mice.  These in turn are eaten by birds, snakes, or larger mammals.  The large and small animals associated with the leaf layer form a natural predator-prey balance in the ecosystem.

We butterfly-lovers (and fellow moth-lovers, too) know the leaf layer shelters these winged beauties in their various life stages.  Numerous butterfly and moth species

Red-banded Hairstreak on Mountain Mint in Barb's yard. Photo © Barb Elliot.

Red-banded Hairstreak on Barb’s Mountain Mint. Photo © Barb Elliot.

overwinter in the leaf litter as eggs, larvae (caterpillars), pupae (chrysalides or cocoons) or adults.  For instance, the lovely Red-banded Hairstreak, which has visited my yard, lays its eggs on the underside of fallen sumac or oak leaves. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars eat the leaves and then overwinter in the leaf layer as late-stage caterpillars or chrysalides.  Tawny Emperor butterfly caterpillars wrap themselves in a curled leaf and overwinter as caterpillars.


Woolly Bear caterpillar in Barb's leaf mulch.  October, 2013.  Photo © Barb Elliot.

Woolly Bear caterpillar in Barb’s leaf mulch. October, 2013. Photo © Barb Elliot.

Isabella Tiger Moth - the adult form of a Woolly Bear.  Photo by Steve Jurvetson.  Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Isabella Tiger Moth – adult form of a Woolly Bear. Steve Jurvetson photo, Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Fuzzy Woolly Bear caterpillars are now searching for good spots under the leaf layer where they will hibernate for the winter.  In spring, each will spin a cocoon and emerge as an Isabella Tiger Moth.

The Luna Moth, one of our largest and most beautiful moths, overwinters as a cocoon in the dead leaves.  Unfortunately, when we treat our leaves as trash, we are also throwing out the butterflies and moths that will grace our yards next spring and summer.

Cocoons of the Luna Moth are found in leaf mulch.  Photo © Adrian Binns.

Luna Moth cocoons are found in leaf mulch. Photo © Adrian Binns.

Leaf litter benefits birds, too.  In my yard I see ground-feeding Eastern Towhees, Gray Catbirds, Northern Flickers, and sparrows picking through the leaves.  They find insects and other invertebrates to feed themselves and their protein-hungry nestlings. One spring, a migrating Brown Thrasher, a species I don’t see very often, foraged in the

Brown Thrashers find food in leaf mulch.  Photo courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.

Brown Thrasher. Photo © Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

leaves of my flower bed.   Birds that nest in my yard search the leaf layer for nesting materials such as leaf stems, twigs, and moss.

In our society, we are expected to be yard “neatniks”.  We conscientiously rake or blow leaves into piles and then stuff them into bags.  Picked up at the curb, the leaves end up in a landfill or a huge “leaf compost” pile that smothers beneficial creatures.  Personally, I choose to keep all my own leaves and add those discarded by neighbors so they can decompose naturally in my yard.  Maybe you, too, will rescue leaves from neighbors.  If you want to start small, rake some leaves into a back corner of your yard.  Although shredding leaves speeds up decomposition, I refrain for fear I’ll destroy the insects and other animals living there.

I’m making a vow.  I will never again throw out next year’s butterflies and moths or the other animals that live in my leaf litter.  Dead leaves are a gift to biodiversity and the web of life.  Leaf mulch is brown gold.  I’m joining the new movement* to make fallen leaves socially acceptable as garden mulch.   I’m in!  Are you?



*Borge, Mary Anne.Red-banded Hairstreaks, Sumacs and Leaf Mulch”. Butterfly Gardener, Volume 18, Issue 3, Fall 2013, 9-11.

Bodin, Madeline.  “Every Litter Bit Helps”.  National Wildlife, October 1, 2005.

Johnson, Elizabeth and Catley, Kefyn.  Life in the Leaf Litter.  American Museum of Natural History, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, 2002.

Sutton, Pat.  A Love of Untidy Gardens and Why!  Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. 2011.