Native Vines for Beauty and Wildlife Value

 By Barb Elliot

Vines have a bad rap. Invasive non-native vines like Kudzu, Oriental Bittersweet, Japanese Honeysuckle, Porcelain Berry, and English Ivy grow up and over trees, often smothering whole forest edges.  By making them top-heavy, these vines can damage and pull down entire trees.  However, not all vines are bad actors.  Most locally native vines are attractive and well-behaved.  By providing food, shelter, and nesting places, they add high wildlife value to our habitat gardens.  I have three of these natives and I highly value the roles they play in my garden.

Trumpet Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird visits Barb’s Trumpet Honeysuckle. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

With Trumpet (aka Coral) Honeysuckle in your yard, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will visit – guaranteed!  This native honeysuckle is not at all like its unruly cousin, Japanese Honeysuckle. Handsome and well-behaved, this vine sports blue-green foliage and coral-red trumpet-shaped flowers.  It’s easy to grow in average, well-drained soils with medium moisture. A twining 10-15’ vine that needs a support, it is striking on a fence or trellis with its profusion of flowers.   It grows in shade, but flowers best in full sun.  Trumpet Honeysuckle begins blooming in April or May and blooms intermittently through summer and into the fall.  In autumn, birds eat the red berries.

Trumpet Honeysuckle alongside Barb’s deck. May 18, 2018.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Trumpet Honeysuckle provides food, shelter, and nesting locations.  One year, American Robins built a nest in one of my honeysuckle vines.  A vine growing close to my bird feeders provides shelter for birds escaping hawks and other predators. According to Doug Tallamy, this honeysuckle hosts up to 33 species of butterfly and/or moth caterpillars that eat its leaves.  Among them are two day-flying hummingbird look-alike moths. the Hummingbird Clearwing and Snowberry Clearwing.

The beautiful trumpet-like flowers of Trumpet Honeysuckle, showing their yellow inner parts. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Trumpet Honeysuckle is truly beloved by hummingbirds.  I love to sit on my deck and watch these flying jewels sip nectar from the long tubular flowers and even fight over the blossoms.  George Washington grew this vine at his Mount Vernon estate where it is still grown today.  In a 1785 diary entry, Washington described planting it around columns and along walls.  Perhaps he, too, enjoyed the hummingbirds that visited his Trumpet Honeysuckle.



Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia

The handsome leaves of Virigina Creeper with their 5 leaflets each. Poison Ivy, circled on left, with its 3 leaflets per leaf. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Virginia Creeper, not to be confused with Poison Ivy, is a beneficial vine that’s entirely harmless to humans.  To differentiate the two plants, look at the leaves. Poison Ivy always has 3 leaflets per leaf,  but Virginia Creeper has 5 leaflets. Some young Virginia Creeper vines may have a few leaves with just 3 leaflets, but most leaves will have 5 leaflets.  The green leaves are handsome and in full sun turn bright red or purple in October.


A Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth caterpillar Barb found on her vine. Note the pointed “horn”, or tail, on left hind end – typical of caterpillars in the sphinx moth family. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Offering high wildlife value, Virginia Creeper hosts 32 species of caterpillars, including the striking Pandora Sphinx and Abbott’s Sphinx moth caterpillars.  These are my most sought after caterpillars, but I have yet to find either of them.  However, as a consolation, I’ve discovered several Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth caterpillars, which I raised to become beautiful adult moths.


A Gray Catbird eating Virginia Creeper berries. Note the berries’ red stems. Photo courtesy of and © Adrian Binns/ Click to enlarge.

In spring, the wildlife-friendly Virginia Creeper’s inconspicuous flowers attract bees and other small pollinators.  Thirty species of birds, including chickadees, woodpeckers, robins, catbirds, warblers, and bluebirdsrelish the dark blue berries in autumn.  Reddish fall foliage and the bright red stems of the berries lure the birds.  Small animals use this vine for cover, especially when it grows along the ground.  A few years ago, Northern Cardinals built a nest in the Virginia Creeper growing on my arbor.

A deciduous woody vine, Virginia Creeper is easy to grow in full sun to full shade in well-drained soil with average moisture.  It will climb brick or stone walls, trellises, arbors, fences, or large trees. One of my favorite ground covers, it will happily cover a stump or wood pile. Although a vigorous grower, climbing 30’ feet or more, it will not smother trees.  If it becomes unruly, it can easily be pulled down or cut off at the base where it will re-sprout.

Virgin’s Bower, Clematis virginiana

An Ailanthus Moth visiting Barb’s Virgin’s Bower. These moths visit both during the day and night. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Virgin’s Bower, a native clematis, is a superb plant for pollinators.   Its small white flowers have a pleasing, sweet fragrance and cover the foliage from mid-to late-August into September.  The flowers attract many pollinators, including butterflies, bumble and other native bees, plus interesting wasps and flies.  Intent on collecting nectar and pollen from the flowers, they are usually oblivious to my presence.

Virgin’s Bower blooming alongside Barb’s deck. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.


Predators like spiders and centipedes furtively wait to catchthe unsuspecting pollinators. I have spent hours, both day and night, watching the pollinators and dramas of nature play out on Virgin’s Bower.

Virgin’s Bower is very easy to grow in medium to wet well-drained soil in part shade to full sun.   Although I love this vine, it is not for the faint of heart. It is a vigorous grower, and if given support, will climb to 20’.  When growing along the ground. it can spread into a tangled

A nighttime visitor to Virgin’s Bower, Tobacco Budworm Heliothis virescen. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

mass.  The vines can take root where they touch the ground.  Seeds from its attractive seed heads are windblown, so new plants can pop up elsewhere in your yard.  But if you are diligent and keep this vine in check, you and many pollinators will be well-rewarded by your efforts.

Red=spotted Purple butterfly at Barb’s Virgin’s Bower. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.




Now is a good time to add these vines to your landscape.  If you have a small space, Trumpet Honeysuckle will work well.   For larger areas, try Virginia Creeper or Virgin’s Bower.  These vines will add texture and interest to your landscape. Pollinators, birds and other wildlife will thrive in your garden.

Go here for a list of local native plant retailers who are likely to sell these vines,

Native Berries for Fall Migrants

By Edie Parnum

Birds were dropping out of the sky into the trees and shrubs around me. It was daybreak on a fall morning in my backyard.  Though I could see only silhouettes, I recognized the chips of robins and Swainson’s Thrushes.  In the dim light I couldn’t identify the other numerous birds but knew these were migrants that had flown non-stop from the north during the night.

After their nighttime exertion, they were exhausted and ravenously hungry. They needed to find high-energy food and to revive in a habitat offering shelter from predators.  With most of the surrounding area covered with buildings, roads, parking

Cedar Waxwing eating Crabapple berries.  Courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

Cedar Waxwing eating Crabapple berries. Courtesy of and © Howard Eskin. Click to enlarge.

lots, and sterile lawns, they were desperate for sustenance.  From above, the migrants probably see the local parks as deceptively inviting, but the grass and other non-native vegetation provide little nutritious food.  Their energy depleted, these migrants need familiar and nourishing native plant food.  Otherwise they are in trouble.

Watching these migrants, I imagine myself on a road trip, one I’ve done many times.  After hours of driving, I’m hungry, tired, and low on gas.  I’m looking forward to Rosie’s Restaurant, a favorite stop for good food, gas, and a respite from the journey.  To my dismay, the restaurant and adjacent gas station are gone.  Wasting time and energy, I must drive around randomly to locate what I need before resuming my trip.

Migrants often find my yard and use it to rest and refuel.  During fall migration, especially after a cold front, I search for recent arrivals.  Sometimes I find thrushes, tanagers, grosbeaks, and warblers eating berries on the Virginia Creeper, Arrowwood Viburnum, Winterberry Holly, Spicebush, Black Chokeberry, Flowering Dogwood, Crabapple, and Northern Bayberry I’ve planted for them. One winter a southbound Hermit Thrush stayed in my yard all winter eating American Holly berries.

This fall I’ve been watching a Gray Catbird eating berries on the Virginia Creeper

Cape may Warbler eating Virginia Creeper berries.  Courtesy of and © G. Dewaghe.  Click to enlarge.

Cape may Warbler eating Virginia Creeper berries. Courtesy of and © G. Dewaghe. Click to enlarge.

hanging above my deck railing.  Because the bird is just a few feet away, I don’t really need my binoculars.  It lands on a branch, leans forward, grabs one of the blue-black berries, then quickly swallows—again and again, all day long.  Either a resident breeder soon to migrate or a recent arrival using my yard as a stopover, this bird needs these berries. Besides Gray Catbird I’ve seen Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Bluebird, Swainson’s Thrush, American Robin, Cape May Warbler, and Yellow-rumped Warbler eating Virginia Creeper berries.

Prior to migration, songbirds must increase their weight by 50-100%.  Thrushes, grosbeaks, waxwings, orioles, tanagers, and other songbirds switch from a diet of insects to mostly berries.  Finding berries consumes less energy than pursuing insects.  Scott McWilliams and Navindra Seeram, researchers at the University of Rhode Island, are studying the diet of birds preparing for migration on Block Island.  According to this new research, birds select deeply-pigmented berries

Highly nutritious Arrowwood Viburnum berries were most preferred by migrants preparing for fall migration in the Block Island study.  Photo © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Highly nutritious Arrowwood Viburnum berries were most preferred by migrants preparing for fall migration in the Block Island study. Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

that are high in antioxidants and fat prior to migration.  Antioxidants help birds(as well as humans) handle stress.  Because migration is certainly stressful, birds need to find nutrient-rich berries at stopovers along their migratory routes.

Migration is hazardous for birds.  On their southward journey they fly at night for four to six hours without a break. They must stop and refuel several times before reaching their wintering grounds, especially if their final destination is the tropics.  They spend four to five days at each stopover where most consume nutrient-rich berries.  If they fail to find sufficient fuel for the next leg of their journey, they become weak and vulnerable to hawks, owls, and other predators.

Scientists tell us even small patches of native plants can provide food and shelter for migrating birds.  On my three quarter acre property, I’ve planted scores of fruit-bearing native shrubs, trees, and vines.  Besides the shrubs mentioned, I’ve recently planted Black Gum, Hackberry, Sassafras, and Spicebush that will offer fruits in future autumns.  Also, in a few spots I allow Pokeweed (regrettably considered a weed by most gardeners) to grow and produce beautiful dark purple berries irresistible to birds.

Since many ornamental and invasive non-native plants produce berries, why are native plants so important for migrating birds?  With their high fat content and extra antioxidants, native berries are highly nutritious.  Because the natives usually have

Birds do eat non-native berries.  This Gray Catbird is eating invasive Porcelainberry and, regrettably, spreading the seeds. Photo courtesy of and © Adrian Binns/Wildside Nature Tours.  Click to enlarge.

Birds do eat non-native berries. This Gray Catbird is eating invasive Porcelainberry and, regrettably, spreading the seeds. Photo courtesy of and © Adrian Binns/Wildside Nature Click to enlarge.

strongly-colored berries, either black or red, or have leaves or stems that are bright red, birds can easily find them.  Also, the native berries ripen at the right time.  Many migrants, especially warblers, continue to eat insects as well—found primarily on native plants.  If necessary, of course, birds will also eat the less nutritious fruits of non-native plants.

Most yards have room for shrubs.  You can plant native fruit-bearing shrubs and small trees around your property’s perimeter to create a hedgerow laden with nutritious fall fruits.  You can also group them around isolated trees.  By reducing your lawn, you’ll find room for more shrubs and other fruiting plants.

Birds, especially those that migrate to the tropics, are in trouble.  On average, the populations of long-distance migrant species drop 1% each year. We assume we can do little except give money to organizations that preserve land.  However, we can help migrating birds survive their perilous and crucial journeys by growing the plants they need and love.


 Top Native Berry Plants for Fall Migrants
Latin Name Common Name
Celtis occidentalis Hackberry
Cornus florida Flowering Dogwood
Ilex opaca American Holly
Malus coronaria Crabapple
Nyssa sylvatica Black Gum/ Tupelo
Sassafras albidum Sassafras
Aronia arbutifolia, A. melanocarpa  Red Chokeberry, Black Chokeberry
Cornus racemosa, C. amonum Gray Dogwood, Silky Dogwood
Ilex verticillata Winterberry Holly
Lindera benzoin Spicebush
Myrica pensylvanica Bayberry
Viburnum   acerfolium, V. dentatum, V. lentago,V. nudum, V. prunifolium Mapleleaf Viburnum, Arrowwood   Viburnum, Nannyberry, Possumhaw,  Black   Haw
Vines and   Herbaceous Plants
Parthenocissus quinquefolia Virginia Creeper Vine
Phytolacca americana Pokeweed