Pollinators Need Our Help!

By Barb Elliot

The earliest spring flowers will soon emerge.  In my garden I’ll admire the delicate white petals of Bloodroot, the first to bloom. Soon I’ll enjoy the blue bell-like flowers of Jacob’s Ladder, the bright yellow of Golden Ragwort, and striking red blooms of Wild Columbine.   The flowers are charming, but I will be more captivated by their insect visitors.  Small bees and flies will fly from blossom to blossom. Working intently, they will stop briefly to feed and gather nectar and pollen.  These will be the first pollinators of the year.

Skipper sipping nectar from Upland Ironweed.  @ Barb Elliot

Skipper sipping nectar from Upland Ironweed. @ Barb Elliot

As spring and summer progress, pollinators will visit the succession of blooms on my native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  Bees, butterflies, flies, beetles, and wasps will be at work.  I’ll watch each butterfly unfurl its straw-like proboscis to daintily probe flower heads and sip nectar.  Yellow pollen grains will dot the heads and bodies of bees and flies.  Female bees will sport saddlebag-like pollen baskets on their hind legs.  The undersides of leafcutter bees’ abdomens will be golden from pollen grains stored on special hairs.

Bumble Bee with pollen baskets.  Photo by Beatriz Moisset. Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Bumble Bee with pollen baskets. Photo by Beatriz Moisset. Wikimedia Creative Commons.

I’ll notice the size, shape, and tongue lengths of pollinators – characteristics that enable some to better exploit different shaped flowers than others.  Iridescent green sweat bees will glisten in the sunlight as they feed on nectar.  The strikingly-marked Locust Borer Beetle will catch my attention as it methodically forages for pollen on my goldenrods.  I’ll marvel at how close I can get to colorful wasps as they busily collect nectar.  Hover flies will hang suspended in air as they take a break from feeding on nectar and pollen.  After dark, with my flashlight, I’ll find moths flying from flower to flower, performing nighttime pollination.

Locust Borer Beetle on goldenrod.  Wikimedia Creative Commons photo.

Locust Borer Beetle on goldenrod. Wikimedia Creative Commons photo.

My flowering plants put on their royal finery to entice these pollinators, not me.  Their showy colors and patterns advertise and guide the pollinators to the plants’ nectar and pollen.  The plants must rely on the pollinators to transport pollen among different flowers of the same species.  This cross-pollination enables plants to produce the seeds and fruit needed  for reproduction.  Well-pollinated plants bear more fruit, produce genetically diverse seed, and are healthier. For the pollinators the nectar provides carbohydrates for energy. The pollen supplies them and their offspring with protein, vitamins, minerals, fats, and starches.

Pollinators play essential roles in our ecosystems.  Seventy-five percent of the world’s plants require pollinators to produce seed or fruit.  One-third of our food supply comes from pollinator-reliant plants. Birds and other wildlife in my yard and the world over eat

Green Sweat Bee.  Photo by Beatriz Moisset on Wikimedia Creative Comoons.

Green Sweat Bee. Photo by Beatriz Moisset on Wikimedia Creative Comoons.

the seeds and fruits produced by pollinator-dependent plants.  Pollinators themselves are food for birds and other animals, including insects.  A diverse population of pollinators is critical to the web of life.

Unfortunately, many pollinators are in decline.  Some are threatened with extinction.  Our most beloved pollinator, the Monarch butterfly, is in serious trouble.  The eastern U.S. population crashed in 2013, and the smallest number on record over-wintered in Mexico this year.  Not only Monarchs but other pollinator populations, including bees, our most prolific pollinators, are in trouble, too. The effects of Colony Collapse Disorder on non-native honeybee populations are well known. However, many of our 4,000 U.S. native bee species, key pollinators of both

Bumble bee with tongue extended on Mountain Mint. Photo @ Barb Elliot.

Bumble bee with tongue extended on Mountain Mint. Photo @ Barb Elliot.

native plants and crops, are also at risk.  Bumble bees seem particularly hard hit, with about half of our 47 U.S. species in decline.  Some are in danger of extinction. Less studied pollinators like beetles, wasps, and moths are likely declining as well.

Loss of good foraging and nesting habitat is the primary cause for pollinator declines.  Pesticides and introduced parasites add to the toll.  Many experts believe neonicotinoid insecticides pose a particular threat to bees and other pollinators.  Those that forage on treated plants become weak or die.  “Neonics” and other systemic pesticides are taken up through a plant’s roots and travel to all parts of the plant, including its nectar and pollen.  Last June, 50,000 bumble bees foraging on flowering trees at a single location in Oregon were killed after the trees were sprayed with a neonicotenoid.  Neonics are present in a variety of insecticide brands commonly sold to gardeners. They are also used in nurseries that raise plants.  In fact, some plants sold as bee-attractants contain neonicotenoids.

Wasp on Mountain Mint. @ Barb Elliot

Wasp on Mountain Mint. @ Barb Elliot

Despite all the threats, we gardeners can help sustain pollinator populations in our area.  (See table below.)  Some gardeners like to attract butterflies, but balk at inviting moths, bees, beetles, flies, and wasps.  However, these insects have important roles to play in the web of life and are generally harmless to gardeners.  Native bees are unaggressive and rarely sting. Even wasps are docile when foraging on flowers, although they may forcefully defend a nest.  By incorporating a variety of native plants in our yards, our most important conservation action, we will attract pollinators that are also predators and keep insect populations in check.  Various beetles, flies, and wasps prey on aphids and other insect pests.  By growing a diversity of native plants (see plant list below), we will encourage a healthy balance of insects in our gardens.

Hover Fly on Snakeroot.  @ Barb Elliot

Hover Fly on Snakeroot. @ Barb Elliot

I hope the plight of the Monarch butterfly will compel us to action. We must help not just the Monarchs* but the less charismatic butterfly, bee, fly, wasp, beetle, and moth pollinators as well.  For too long, we have ignored pollinators or treated them as pests to be destroyed.  We have gardened for aesthetics and our enjoyment without considering nature.  These beneficial creatures are crucial players in the web of life in our own gardens and beyond. We can make a difference for them.  We and our gardens will benefit.

 *Please note that we will be selling milkweed plants for Monarchs again this year!  Stay tuned for an upcoming post about Monarchs and details of the milkweed sale.

How to Help Pollinators
Provide Food 
  • Plant:
¨  A variety of nectar- and pollen-rich native plants. Strive for 8 or more species.
¨   Perennials in clusters, preferably 5 or more of a single species, so plants are easily found.
¨   For a succession of blooms from early spring through late fall.
¨   Natives with different flower shapes for pollinators or varied sizes, shapes, and tongue lengths.
¨   Host plants for butterflies and moths.
  • Buy plants at local native plant retailers or where sellers identify whether plants are pre-treated with systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoids.
  • Remove invasive plants so they crowd out natives
Provide nesting and overwintering sites
  • Leave:
¨  Areas of bare soil in sunny, well-drained spots.
¨   Stumps, logs on the ground, dead branches and trees.
¨   Leaf litter for over-wintering butterflies, moths, beetles and their larvae or pupae
¨   Stems of perennials standing from fall through late winter
Provide water
  • Add a shallow dish with sloped sides for easy entry and exit
  • Keep an area of soil moist or muddy for butterflies and other pollinators that forage for minerals and salts in soil
Prevent pesticide poisoning
  • Don’t use pesticides, but especially avoid neonicotinoids.  Click here for a list of common brands containing neonics.
  • Don’t apply herbicides or fungicides to lawn or beds with nest sites or pollinator plants
Other Ways to Help Pollinators
  • Make a commitment to protect pollinators by getting your yard certified as a pollinator habitat and posting a sign.  See The Xerces Society’s “Bring Back the Pollinators” campaign
  • Become a citizen scientist to help scientists track pollinator populations, such as by reporting sightings of bumble bees to Bumble Bee Watch or other species to Project NoahXerces Bring Back the Pollinators habitatsignfull (1)
Recommended Native Plants for Pollinators by Bloom Period

Common Name

Botanical Name

Flower Color

Bloom Period^

Height

Soil

Exposure

Notes

Perennials

Bloodroot
Sanguinaria canadensis
White
April
6-8”
Dry to moist
Part shade to shade
Golden Ragwort
Packera aurea
Yellow
April-May
1-2’
Moist to wet
Part shade to shade
Host plant. Deer resistant
Jacob’s Ladder
Polemonium reptans
Blue
April-May
8-15”
Moist
Part  shade to shade
Deer resistant
Wild Geraniium
Geranium maculatum
Pink – purple
April-May
1-3’
Moist to dry
Part sun to shade
Host plant. Deer resistant
False Solomon’s Seal
Maianthemum racemosum
White-cream
May
12-24”
Moist to dry
Part shade to shade
Smooth Solomon’s Seal
Polygonatum biflorum
White -light yellow
May-June
2-4’
Moist to dry
Part sun
Deer resistant
Wild Columbine
Aquilegia canadensis
Red
May-June
1-3’
Moist to average
Part sun to shade
Deer resistant
Beardtongue
Penstemon digitalis
White
June-July
2-3’
Dry to moist
Sun to part shade
Deer resistant
Bee Balm
Monarda didyma
Red
June-August
3-4’
Moist to dry
Sun to part shade
Deer resistant
Butterfly Milkweed
Asclepia tuberosa
Orange
June-August
1-2’
Dry to moist
Sun
Host plant for Monarch, others.  Deer resistant
Nodding Onion
Allium cernuum
Pale -dark pink
July
1-2’
Dry to moist
Sun
Deer resistant
Purple Coneflower
Echinacea purpurea
Purplish pink
July
3-4’
Moist to dry
Sun to part sun
Swamp Milkweed
Asclepias incarnata
Light – dark pink
July
3-5’
Moist to wet
Sun to part sun
Host plant – Monarch butterfly; deer resistant
Blazing Star
Liatris spicata
Purple
July-August
2-4’
Moist
Sun
Culver’s Root
Veronicastrum virginicum
White
July-August
3-5’
Moist
Sun to part shade
Joe Pye Weed
Eutrochium maculatum; E. fistulosum
Pink
July-August
4-7’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Host plant. Deer resistant
Short-toothed Mountain Mint
Pycnanthemum mutucum
White
July-August
2-3’
Moist
Sun to part shade
Deer resistant
White Turtlehead
Chelone glabra
White
July-August
2-4’
Moist to wet
Sun to part sun
Wild Bergamot
Monarda fistulosa
Pink
July-August
2-4’
Moist to dry
Sun to part sun
Host plant. Deer resistant
Common Boneset
Eupatorium perfoliatum
White
July-September
2-4’
Moist to wet
Sun
Host plant
Cup Plant
Silphium perfoliatum
Yellow
July- September
4-8’
Moist to wet
Sun
Host plant
Fragrant Hyssop
Agastache foeniculum
Blue-violet
July-September
3-5’
Moist to dry
Sun to part sun
Deer resistant
False Sunflower
Heliopsis helianthoides
Yellow
July-September
3-5’
Moist to dry
Sun to part sun
Garden Phlox
Phlox paniculata
Pink/white/
lavender
July-September
2-6’
Moist
Sun to part shade
Goldenrod -Stiff
Solidago rigida
Yellow
July-Sept
3-5’
Dry to moist
Sun to part sun
Host plant. Deer resistant
Great Blue Lobelia
Lobelia siphilitica
Blue
August
1-3’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Cutleaf/ Green-headed Coneflower
Rudbeckia laciniata
Yellow
August-September
3-6’
Moist
Sun to part sun
New England Aster
Symphotrichum novae-angliae
Pink -purple
August-September
2-5’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Host plant
Goldenrod – Zigzag
Solidago flexicaulis
Yellow
August-October
1-3’
Dry to moist
Part shade to shade
Host plant. Deer resistant
New York Ironweed
Vernonia noveboracensis
Magenta
August-October
3-6’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Obedient Plant
Physostegia virginiana
Pink
August-October
2-5’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Mistflower or Hardy Ageratum
Conoclinum coelestinum
Blue
September-October
1-3’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Deer resistant

Vines

Virgin’s Bower (a magnet for daytime species & moths at night)
Clematis virginiana
White
August-September
To 10’
Moist
Sun to part shade
May spread. Deer resistant

Trees and Shrubs

Pussy Willow
Salix discolor
Silvery gray
March
20-35’
Sun
Wet to moist
Serviceberry
Amelanchier canadensis;  A. laevis
White
April
6-20’
Sun to part shade
Dry to moist
Highbush Blueberry
Vaccinium corymbosum
White – pink
April-May
6-12’
Sun to shade
Wet to dry, acid
Redbud
Cercis canadensis
Pink – lavender
April-May
20-30’
Sun to part shade
Moist to wet
Deer resistant
Black Cherry
Prunus serotina
White
May-June
50-75’
Sun to part shade
Moist
Sweetbay Magnolia
Magnolia virginiana
Creamy white
May-June
10-20’
Sun to part shade
Moist to wet
Deer resistant
Black Gum
Nyssa sylvatica
Green
June
30-50’
Sun to part shade
Moist to wet
Deer resistant
Tulip Tree
Liriodendron tulipifera
Yellow-green  & orange
June
75-100’
Sun to part shade
Moist to average
Basswood
Tilia americana
Pale yellowish
Late June-early July
75-100’
Full sun to light shade
Moist
Buttonbush
Cephalanthus occidentalis
Creamy white
July-August
6-12’
Sun
Wet to moist

Fall: Time for Planting Trees and Shrubs

By Edie Parnum

I thrust my spade into a patch of my lawn.  It’s fall, and I’m planting a 4-foot Chestnut Oak.  As I dig, I imagine this young tree next spring with its new green leaves.  Even as a young sapling, it will host insects and birds.  Looking into the future, I imagine this stately native tree a century from now.  It has given life to thousands of birds and other animals.

Edie planting a Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus) sapling. Photo © Barb Elliot

My neighbors, I’ve noticed, aren’t thinking about spring.  They are clearing their yards of leaves and the dead vegetation from last year’s ornamental plants.  They are putting this unwanted garden debris out on the curb along with the cocoons and eggs of next year’s insects. They are getting ready for winter. Fall is the best time for planting trees and shrubs, any time before the ground freezes. During the autumn rains, the new plants aren’t asleep. They’re putting energy into their roots for a spurt of growth next spring.This fall, as usual, I will plant several trees and shrubs.  When I bought this ¾-acre property five years ago, it was mostly grass with just a few trees, mostly non-natives.  Since then I’ve planted 39 native trees and 45 native shrubs. It’s still not enough.

I keep planting native woody plants because they support wildlife.  Certainly non-native woodies offer fruits birds will eat—witness the bird-spread proliferation of invasives like Multiflora Rose, Burning Bush, and Japanese Barberry.  Natives, however, offer fruits of optimum size and superior nutrition. The fruits of the dogwoods, blueberries, winterberries, viburnums, spicebush, and sassafras I’ve planted ripen just in time to nourish hungry migrating birds in fall. Now in late October most of the berries are gone—consumed by thrushes, catbirds, mockingbirds, waxwings, and warblers.

The main reason I plant native woodies, however, is for the caterpillars and other insects these plants support.  I’m inspired by Doug Tallamy, Professor and Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware.  His research shows

The caterpillar of the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly uses Spicebush or Sassafras as its host plant. USFWS Photo by Ryan Hagerty.

that native plants host 29 times more of the native insects essential for our birds. After all, 96% of terrestrial birds feed their young exclusively insect food.

This year to augment what I’m already growing, I’ll plant ten small trees and shrubs.  I’m planting the Chestnut Oak, Quercus prinus (according to Tallamy, oaks host 534 species of caterpillars); American Elm, Ulmus Americana (hosts 213); and Pawpaw, Asimina triloba (host plant for Zebra Swallowtail butterfly, a species I covet for my yard butterfly list).

Planting a tree or shrub is easy.  For my Chestnut Oak and the other trees and shrubs, I don’t need to dig a huge hole.  I make my hole only as deep as the soil in the plant container and twice as wide.  After putting the plant into the hole, I make sure the soil line of the plant is level with the ground. Then I use the soil that was removed from the hole to fill in around the plant.  Because my oak is a local native adapted to our soil, I am not tempted to add special topsoil, fertilizer, or any other enrichment.  That would stimulate fast but weak growth.   A hole filled with artificially enriched soil encourages the roots to stay confined rather than to reach into the ground below for nourishment.  Next, I push down on the loose dirt with my hands, but avoid stomping on it with my feet.   I spread a one-inch layer of my compost (last year’s leaves and garden debris) on top to provide some extra humus not available in the turf grass.  Then I give my oak a good watering.  That’s it for this tree.  I’m ready to plant more.

Three-year-old Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) with cage to prevent deer browse. Photo © Edie Parnum

Newly planted trees and shrubs may need extra water.  During any week without significant rain, I put a leaky watering can next to each plant and let the water drip slowly into the soil.  A 1-2” layer of mulch will help retain the moisture, but I never let the mulch touch the trunk.  Once established, these woody plants, situated appropriately for light and moisture, should thrive without any additional help from me.

The trees and shrubs I plant are usually small.  They are cheaper and suffer less transplant shock than a big tree or shrub.  These smaller saplings start to grow more quickly and in a few years usually out-compete larger nursery stock.  To save money, I also frequently transplant volunteer trees and shrubs in my yard to more appropriate locations.  Some of my shrubs—virburnums, for instance—send out shoots that I dig up and plant elsewhere.  I also accept gifts from my native plant gardening friends.  As I say, there’s always room for more.  Anyway, I’m not growing ornamental specimens.  The plants can touch each other and offer extra shelter, just as they do in the wild.

Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) – flagged shoots are ready to transplant. Photo © Barb Elliot

My trees and shrubs are still small, but they already support birds and other wildlife.   Next spring I’ll see warblers and other hungry migrants eating caterpillars on the leaves of my native woody plants.  The remaining areas of grass are begging to be planted with additional native trees and shrubs.  Next fall I won’t resist planting more.

—————————–

For Doug Tallamy’s list of woody plants supporting butterfly and moth caterpillars, click here.

 Trees and Shrubs on  Edie’s Property
Botanical Name Common Name Wildlife Value
Trees
Acer rubrum Red Maple L, F
Aesculus pavia Red Buckeye L, N
Amelanchier canadensis Serviceberry/ Juneberry L. F
Asimina triloba Pawpaw L, F
Betula lenta, B. nigra Sweet Birch, River Birch L, F
Celtis occidentalis Hackberry L, F
Cercis canadensis Eastern Redbud L, N
Cornus alternifolia, C.florida Pagoda Dogwood, Flowering Dogwood L, F
Ilex opaca American Holly L, F
Juniperus virginiana Eastern Red Cedar L, F
Liriodendron tulipifera Tulip Poplar L, N, F
Magnolia virginiana Sweetbay Magnolia L
Nyssa sylvatica Black Gum/ Tupelo L, F
Pinus strobus Eastern White Pine L, F
Prunus serotina Black Cherry L, F
Quercus   alba,Q. coccinea, Q. pinus, Q. rubra White Oak, Scarlet Oak, Chestnut Oak, Red Oak L, F
Sassafras albidum Sassafras L, F
Tsuga canadensis Eastern Hemlock L,F
Shrubs
Aronia melanocarpa. Black Chokeberry L, F
Clethra alnifolia Sweet Pepperbush N
Cornus racemosa, C. amonum Gray Dogwood, Silky Dogwood L, N, F
Hydrangea arborescens, H.   quercifolia Wild Hydrangea, Oakleaf   Hydrangea N
Ilex verticillata Winterberry Holly F
Myrica pensylvanica Bayberry L, F
Rosa virginiana Wild or Pasture Rose L, F
Sambucus canadensis American Elder L, F, N
Vaccinium corymbosum Highbush Blueberry L, F, N
Viburnum   dentatum, V. lentago,V. nudum, V. prunifolium Arrowwood Viburnum, Nannyberry,   Possumhaw,  Black Haw L, F
L   = Leaves support moth and butterfly caterpillars and other leaf-eating   insects that are eaten by birds
N   = Nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators
F   = Food products such as berries, seeds, nuts, buds, and pollen for birds,   mammals, and pollinators

Places to buy native plants:

 

A Magnificent Moth

by Barb Elliot

When I was a ten year old kid I “saved” a Polyphemus moth my father had almost accidentally killed while pruning our hedge.  Actually, I didn’t save it—in truth, quite the opposite.  I captured it and put it into a collecting jar.  After it died I mounted and framed it.  Enamored with butterflies and moths, I then hung it in my bedroom along with the rest of my collection. Over the years I have displayed this beautiful, six-inch moth in my various homes.  However, I never saw one in the wild again until this spring – more than 50 years later.

Male Polyphemus Moth (Dan Mackinnon @ fcps.edu)

On May 20th, a spectacular male Polyphemus moth just like that first one emerged from a cocoon in my yard.  I had discovered the large cocoon hanging from a Spicebush twig in early March. I couldn’t tell what type of moth might be overwintering in the cocoon, but I checked it often, hoping to see what would emerge.

Cocoon in my yard, 3/7/2012

When the time came, I almost missed it because it hung several inches from the cocoon, which appeared to be intact except for a small hole in the top.  As the moth hung among the leaves, only the under wings, which look like dead leaves, were visible. I would have liked to see the more striking upper sides of the wings, but did not disturb it for a better look.   This moth was to remain completely free — and in fact it was gone by the next day.

Newly emerged Polyphemus Moth in my yard, 5/20/12

It likely flew off that night in hot pursuit of a female, using its large, feathery antenna to detect the powerful sex hormone scents (pheromones) a female emits to attract a mate.  Polyphemus males can detect and fly to females that are miles away.  The moths survive for about a week, living only to mate and lay eggs. In fact, the adults don’t have mouthparts and can’t eat or drink.

 

A Polyphemus caterpillar, however, is an eating machine.

Polyphemus moth late stage caterpillar (buglifecycle.com)

In the five to six weeks it takes until it is ready to pupate and spin its cocoon, it increases its weight by more than 10,000 times and grows to three inches long and ¾ inch in diameter. The caterpillar then wraps itself in a leaf and encases itself in silk thread spun from its mouth or it may crawl down and spin its cocoon on the ground.  A cocoon wrapped in a leaf may stay on the tree or shrub all winter as “mine” did, or it may fall to the ground in the autumn.  This is an important reason not to rake up the leaves that fall under your trees and shrubs.

As a result of their nocturnal habits and since so few make it to adulthood, not many of us ever get to see these beautiful creatures. Birds and mammals search out the protein-rich caterpillars, and few caterpillars escape the many parasites that prey on them.  If you provide host plants that the caterpillars eat, you can increase your chances of seeing one and help to increase their chances of survival.  Polyphemus moth caterpillars eat the leaves of a variety of native trees, including Oaks (Quercus), Maple (Acer), Birches (Betula), Hickories (Carya), Walnut (Juglans), Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), and  American Elm (Ulmus americana).  I’m not sure which of these plants “my” caterpillar ate, as I have five of these species in my yard.

The Polyphemus moth is in the family of large showy silk moths native to southeastern Pennsylvania.  Others species include the Cecropia (the largest moth in North America), Luna, Io, Imperial, Promethea, Tuliptree, Rosy Maple, and Royal Walnut Moth.  These moths also eat a variety of native trees and shrubs that would make great additions to a yard.

One last thing you can do to help the Polyphemus and other moths survive and reproduce successfully is to keep outdoor lights turned off as much as possible.  Any lights at night can “capture” moths, interrupt their search for mates, exhaust them, and make them easy targets for predators.

Newly emerged Polyphemus Moth with cocoon, 5/20/12

I hope you too may have the exciting experience of seeing a Polyphemus or one of the other showy silk moths in your yard!

Create a Living Legacy: Plant an Oak

By Edie Parnum

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Planting an oak is the single most important thing we can do to support wildlife.

As a birder who loves spring migration, I have long noticed that my beloved warblers and other colorful birds prefer the native oak trees.   On May mornings, just when their foliage is emerging, I scan the oaks.  That’s where I find American Redstarts, Blackburnian Warblers, Scarlet Tanagers and other favorites in their resplendent spring plumage.  Only recently have I learned why these birds are in the oaks.  I credit Doug Tallamy, Professor of Entomology at the University of Delaware and author of Bringing Nature Home.  Oaks, according to Tallamy, support 534 species of lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) caterpillars– more than any other native tree or plant. These caterpillars are not only the primary food source for migrating and breeding birds, but are essential food for baby birds. Other native plants support caterpillars, too, but non-native plants host very few at all.

Double-lined Prominent caterpillars can be found on oaks. Photo by Jon Rapp

I’ve always known that acorns are important food for turkeys, woodpeckers, jays, nuthatches, squirrels, chipmunks and other animals.  However, birds and other animals are even more dependent on the insects that munch on the oak leaves.  According to Tallamy, in addition to myriad lepidoptera species, oaks host aphids, leafhoppers, thrips, and other bugs–all target foods for animals throughout each growing season.

Professional landscapers may try to dissuade you from planting an oak.  They’ll tell you it grows too big for the average-sized yard, though most yards are big enough to support a full-sized mature oak. 

Eastern Bluebird with caterpillar to feed its young. Photo by Jake Dingel, PA Game Commission.

Perhaps, without any sense of irony, they will say that an oak will grow too slowly.  Certainly most oaks will be small for many years, but even young trees will support lots of insects.

While there are many local, native oaks to choose from, the handsome White Oak (Quercus alba) is my personal favorite.  From my childhood days in Salem County, NJ, I have fond memories of a nearby magnificent, ancient White Oak.  John Fenwick, an early settler, signed a treaty with the Lenape Indians in 1676 under this tree, now approximately 425 years old.  This species grows slowly (about a foot per year), but can live for centuries.

White Oak, Quercus alba, Edie's favorite oak

Other recommended oak species include Scarlet Oak (Q. coccinea),  Chestnut Oak (Q. montana),  RedOak (Q. rubra), and Black Oak (Q. velutina). These oaks are available at native plant nurseries and native plants sales. Since oaks have long tap roots, choose a small specimen (4’ or less) or grow your own from an acorn.  Because they are adapted to our soils and climate, no fertilizer or other amendments are needed.  However, regular watering during the first year helps the root system get established.

An oak is your personal legacy.  Your oak can live for centuries. It will host an inestimable number of birds, insects, and other wildlife during your own lifetime and for generations to come.