Butterfly spotting, part 1: common butterflies in the garden

I must sound like a broken record. In most of my blog posts, I begin with a variation of: “Even though our native plantings are only a few years old, I see more insects/birds each year, and a greater diversity of insect/bird species.” Here I go again — in 2019, I saw so many butterflies, including ones I had never seen before.

There were multiple butterflies in our garden almost every day. They were around so often that I even stopped running outside with the camera every time someone shouted ‘BUTTERFLY!’ At times, I felt like a Disney princess with the butterflies fluttering around me as I worked outside. In the future, I may have to start weeding in a ball gown.

The most common butterflies were American and Painted Ladies, Black and Giant Swallowtails, Monarchs, and of course non-native Cabbage Whites. They seem particularly easy to attract in the garden by including their caterpillar food plants (called host plants), and a variety of nectar plants for the adult butterflies.

American Lady butterflies

American Ladies like open spaces with low vegetation, like our mini-meadow and hedgerow. The first generation lays eggs in spring on Pussytoes varieties and Pearly Everlasting. These native plants both have grey, fuzzy leaves, and small, but interesting white flowers. The caterpillars make distinctive webbed enclosures for protection from predators. Once an enclosure is too full of frass (poop), they build a new webbed hide-out. There were many caterpillars on my clumps of Pearly Everlasting, as well as a few on the Field Pussytoes I use as ‘living mulch’ in sunny areas.

An American Lady butterfly resting on top of leaf litter, and being photo-bombed by an ant. (May 22, 2019)
An American Lady butterfly laying eggs on Pearly Everlasting. (June 9, 2019)
This American Lady butterfly caterpillar has left its host plant (Pearly Everlasting, in behind). Perhaps it made a chrysalis nearby. (June 30, 2019)

Painted Lady butterflies

Painted Lady butterflies aren’t as fussy eaters, using up to 100 different plants as host plants, such as Thistles, Hollyhocks, and legumes. We found their caterpillars on Wild Lupines (a legume) growing in little pots on a table. This was a great vantage point for observing them, as well as for taking close-up photos.

A Painted Lady caterpillar hidden in its webbed enclosure. (July 13, 2019)
A more mature Painted Lady caterpillar on Wild Lupine leaves. (July 21, 2019)

American Lady and Painted Lady butterflies look very similar. BugGuide has a simple guide for distinguishing one from the other. I also think that Painted Ladies look more faded in colour than the American Ladies.

A migrating Painted Lady butterfly sipping nectar from Brazilian Verbena flowers. (September 12, 2019)

Some people assume that Painted Ladies are small Monarchs. While they’re both orange and black, Painted Ladies are smaller and have larger white spots. Since both butterflies migrate at the same time in late summer, we do often found them together drinking nectar from the same flowers.

Eastern Black Swallowtail butterflies

Eastern Black Swallowtail butterflies also frequented the garden this summer. They use some common non-native herbs as host plants, such as Dill, Fennel, Rue, and Parsley. They also use some invasive weeds, namely Queen Anne’s Lace and Wild Parsnip, as host plants. This might explain why there are so many of them around.

A Black Swallowtail drinking nectar from Purple Coneflowers. (July 28, 2019)

Male and Female Black Swallowtails look quite different on the inside of their wings — the males have more yellow spots, whereas the females have more blue — but I can’t tell the difference from the outside of their wings. For identification tips, see this University of Wisconsin-Madison page, or this University of Florida page.

A tattered, female Black Swallowtail butterfly in our mini-meadow. (July 28, 2019)

The caterpillars of Black Swallowtail butterflies are sometimes mistaken for Monarch caterpillars because they both have black, yellow, and white stripes. Monarch caterpillars are only found on Milkweed plants, while Black Swallowtail caterpillars are not found on Milkweed.

A young (early instar) Black Swallowtail caterpillar on Rue. The Rue has dense, shrubby foliage that helps the caterpillars remain hidden. (June 30, 2019)
An older Black Swallowtail caterpillar on Dill. (August 3, 2019)
A big Black Swallowtail cat’ on Curly Parsley. I think the crinkled leaves of Curly Parsley provide better hiding spots for the caterpillars, making them less vulnerable to predators. (August 27, 2017)

Giant Swallowtail butterflies

Giant Swallowtails are a spectacular sight, with a wingspan of up to 6 1/2-inches, and a very graceful flight. While they drink nectar from flowers, however, they are ridiculously frantic; perhaps they are so big that they have to hover while they drink. Starting in mid-summer, Giant Swallowtail butterflies began visiting our back garden for nectar. The preferred my brightest, gaudiest flowers in our mini-meadow.

Although I had planted a few Giant Swallowtail host plants, 2 Hop trees and a clump of Rue, we never found any caterpillars on them.

A Giant Swallowtail drinking nectar from Brazilian Verbena. (August 20, 2019)
Here, our first Giant Swallowtail guest only drank nectar from Red Valerian flowers. (June 28, 2019)
Later visitors gravitated to the bright ‘Red Riding Hood’ phlox cultivar, ignoring all the other flowers. (August 13, 2019)(Sorry for the blurry phone photo.When I’m in a panic to take insect pictures, I use whatever is handy.)

Monarch butterflies

I have never seen so many Monarchs in the garden before; they were drinking nectar, basking, roosting, mating, and laying eggs. You can find more about ‘our’ Monarchs in my past blog post A great summer for Monarchs.

The last Monarch passing through our garden before heading south. This ‘Fireworks’ Goldenrod was my last goldenrod to bloom and was popular with lots of insects. (October 2, 2019)

Even more butterflies

Well, I saw so many butterflies in the garden this summer, that I can’t fit them all into a reasonable-sized blog post. This is a good problem to have! In my next post, I’ll show you some of the new butterflies I spotted, and share tips for butterfly watching.

Neglect and bird poop: how my native hedgerow began

I used to think that our back yard was just too big. At the very end, there is a 10-foot high chain-link fence that separates our yard from the high school field beyond. Each spring, I battled a tangle of tree seedlings, vines, and weeds that sprung up near the fence. I dreamed of creating another English-style border, but I never seemed to get past the initial weed-clearing process.

Neglect

These unwanted plants had free reign in my absence. I spent several years caring for our young children and my ailing parents. I had no time for gardening. When I finally returned to the back yard, it did not resemble the garden I had made years before. Although it was wild, I had to admit that it wasn’t all bad. Self-seeding plants had wandered from their designated places, but had created some lovely new combinations. I tried to be positive and saw the unkempt garden as an opportunity to do something different.

Bird poop

I noticed a lot of bird activity along the back fence that spring — something I had never seen before. The tree seedlings had grown into small trees. I recognized the dreaded European Buckthorn, but I couldn’t identify the other spindly trees. Whatever they were, the birds liked them, so I decided to read up on bird gardening.

I learned that I had multiple Chokecherries and Hawthorn trees. They’re small native trees that provide food for birds: birds may eat the pollinators the visit the flowers in spring, birds feed their chicks moth and butterfly caterpillars that use the trees as host plants, and birds eat the fruit that develops later in the summer. Birds also find shelter in these trees, and make nests in Hawthorns because they are protected from predators by the spikes that grow along the branches.

Blooms on one of the Hawthorn trees growing along our back fence.
Chokecherry flowers on the small trees in one corner of our back yard.

The National Audubon Society’s book The Bird Garden (at Ottawa Public Library) contains an illustration called “The Economical Hedgerow” (page 19). It shows birds sitting on a wire, dropping excrement containing seeds. The seeds germinate, and grow into shrubs and trees that will provide shelter and food for birds. I’m sure that our Chokecherries and Hawthorns were planted by birds sitting on the wires above our back fence! The birds started to plant a hedgerow — and I decided to continue planting it.

Where to begin?

Almost everything I could find on planting hedgerows is from the UK. There, hedgerows have been used for centuries as living fences around fields. Hedgerows mimic natural shrub lands or forest edges. They contain a mix of deciduous and coniferous shrubs and trees that produce fruit, seeds, and nuts. Vines and other flowering plants grow beneath and around the woody plants. Hedgerows in the UK provide vital habitat for birds, small animals, and insects. They also connect with each other, and with remaining woodlands, becoming wildlife corridors. Sadly, many hedgerows in the UK have been ripped out to create larger fields that will accommodate modern agricultural machinery.

Obviously, the hedgerow information from the UK recommends shrubs and trees that aren’t native here in Ottawa. All the bird gardening books stress the importance of native plants for birds. So, what should I plant here in my hedgerow? Thankfully, the Fletcher Wildlife Garden web site, maintained by the Ottawa Field Naturalists, has a page on Creating a hedgerow for wildlife. It includes an overview of hedgerow ecology, and lists native shrubs for hedgerows in sunny or shadier locations. Perfect!

Finding native shrubs for sale

It took a while to find native shrubs and piece together our hedgerow. I started with Pussy Willow, Serviceberry, Elderberry, Gray Dogwood, and Wild Raisin Viburnum. The Pussy Willow provides insects for birds, Serviceberry and Elderberry offer fruit in the summer, and Gray Dogwood and Viburnum bear later fruit for migrating birds.

Pussy Willow shrubs are an important early source of nectar and pollen for bees. They are also a host plant for hundreds of different moths and butterflies; their caterpillars are essential food for baby birds.
These blossom clusters on a Gray Dogwood shrub will later become white berries.

That first winter, I learned that rabbits also enjoy eating native shrubs. Resident Cottontail Rabbits ate the Serviceberries and Viburnums to the ground. To fill in shadier spots in the hedgerow, and the gaps created by rabbits, I later added Purple-flowering Raspberry, Hop tree (for Giant Swallowtail butterflies), American Hazelnut, Wild Plum, Winterberry (male and females), and Nannyberry Viburnum.

The flowers of Purple-flowering Raspberry look like single roses. They’re under-planted with native Violets.

In the Ottawa area, I’ve bought native shrubs from Make it Green Garden Centre, Green Thumb Garden Centre, Ferguson Tree Nursery (Kempville), and Beaux Arbres Native Plants (Bristol Quebec). I bought my Purple-flowering Raspberry further afield at Native Plants in Claremont (north Pickering).

Arranging the hedgerow

That may seem like a lot of shrubs. Hedgerows are often planted densely, so I placed my shrubs about 1 1/2 yards apart. I can always cut some down after the hedgerow fills in if I find it too crowded. With the unexpected rabbit pruning this may take a while. They have to eat too, so I try not to get too annoyed with them.

When I arranged, and re-arranged, the hedgerow, I tried to mix up autumn leaf colours. I also placed the Winterberries front and centre, so we can see them from the house in the winter. Whenever I find Black Raspberry seedlings around the yard, I’ve been moving them to an area of the hedgerow; I’m not sure if I will some day regret creating thorny tangle of brambles. As well, the shrubs beneath the Hawthorne have struggled, so I will move them next year and try Spikenard in their place. Hedgerows should include a few conifers, so I’ll keep this in mind if any other shrubs need to be replaced.

Planting beneath and around the shrubs

I’ve also been planting native ground covers, for part-shade and shade, in the hedgerow. So far, my favourite combination has been Violets and Wild Strawberry, both of which I transplanted from the lawn. These patches are alive with small pollinators in the spring. I’ve also been adding spring woodland plants under the shrubs: Canada Anemone, Canada Columbine, Virginia Waterleaf, Woodland Sunflower, Zigzag Goldenrod, and White Wood Aster are all allowed to spread freely in the hedgerow — as these plants are wont to do.

Canada Anemone flowers. I didn’t see much pollinator activity on them this spring.
Red and yellow Canada Columbine flowers, as well as a pale purple Virginia Waterleaf ‘sparkler’.
A lovely mix of Wild Strawberries and Violets. I think there may be a brownish, hairy Fritillary caterpillar on one of the Violet leaves (centre right).

More, more, more!

Our hedgerow connects with other vines and trees that are already growing along the fence in neighbouring yards to create a natural highway along our block.

There is a saying that “shrubs shrink the yard” and it certainly seems true. While my back yard once seemed too big, I now wish I had room for even more native shrubs. In fact, this summer I created a new hedgerow along one side of our back yard to join up with the hedgerow along the back fence.

The young hedgerow in spring. Once flowering is over, the hedgerow is just a mix of green textures. I planted tall, sun-loving native plants in front of the hedgerow, such as Cup Plant and Ironweed, to add colour in the summer.
In August, the Ironweed and Cup Plant are in bloom in front of an Elderberry shrub. Two Goldfinches are eating Cup Plant seeds.

November Crabapple feast

A couple of years ago, I planted a Crabapple tree that bears small fruit for birds to eat in winter. Last year, there were only a few berries and I didn’t spot anything eating them. This year has been a different story. In mid-November, during an unusually cold and snowy week, the birds entertained us as they feasted on the Crabapples.

Room with a (garden) view

I’m a big fan of Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden blog, podcast, and books. Roach explains that birds taught her to garden at her rural New York state home, meaning that her garden attracts birds by meeting their needs. She shares plant suggestions and garden design tips that have guided many of my own decisions. With winter almost here, I am reminded of Roach’s valuable advice to Look out the window: garden design 101. Simply put, choose plants and strategically place garden beds, so you can enjoy them, and the wildlife they attract, from within your house.

When it comes to cold, snowy weather, I’m a real wimp — very un-Canadian! I blame my Reynaud Syndrome, which quickly turns my fingers deathly white. If I’m going to enjoy our wildlife garden in winter, it must be from indoors. I’ve designed the gardens accordingly, by looking out our windows as I dream and plan.

First of all, in the backyard, we placed the circulating steam/pond within view from our patio door. Beside the pond, I planted a ‘Prairie Fire’ Crabapple tree, which has beautiful pink flowers in spring and red fruit in winter. I clustered 5 Red Osier Dogwood shrubs nearby so we can enjoy their bright red stems peeking out of the snow, and the bird that eat their berries. I then added a variety of native bird seed plants, such as Purple Coneflowers and Anise Hyssop, to attract Goldfinches and Juncos.

A feast for birds

Last year, all of these plants were still small, so we didn’t see much wildlife activity. This year has been much more successful. We even removed the window screen, so I can open the glass door to take unobstructed photos of our backyard visitors. Even as a beginner, amateur photographer, I was able to capture some amazing sights!

An American Robin kindly posing with a Crabapple in its beak. (November 17, 2019)
This Robin was more interested in eating than posing. (November 17, 2019)
A female Cardinal struggles to keep her balance as she reaches for a Crabapple. (November 17, 2019)
A male House Finch takes a break between Crabapples. I haven’t seen House Finches for a while. The combination of cold weather, available Crabapples, and the flowing stream brought them back for a visit. (November 17, 2019)

…and other creatures

We were also delighted to see other critters eating the Crabapples, too. Apparently, mid-November was still too early for Chipmunks to be hiding out in their dens for winter. We got to watch our resident Chippies doing gymnastics and eating right outside the window on another Crabapple tree. Of course, wherever there is food, you also find Black and Grey Squirrels.

A cute Chipmunk hangs by his toes while it eats from a second ‘Prairie Fire’ Crabapple planted right outside the patio door. (November 15, 2019)
A chubby Squirrel joined the feast as well. (November 15, 2019)

Plant small-fruiting Crabapples

Crabapples are an easy fruit to provide for overwintering birds. While it can be difficult to find native shrubs (that produce berries for birds), nurseries reliably sell Crabapple trees each spring because they feature pretty, fragrant flowers that appeal to customers.

If you buy Crabapple trees that grow small fruit, they can be a valuable food source for birds throughout fall and winter. In Crabapples for birds, Johnson’s nursery in Wisconsin explains that Crabapple fruits vary in hardness; the softer the fruit, the earlier it is ready for birds to eat. They list numerous small-fruiting Crabapple varieties, grouped according to when they’re soft enough for birds. For example, in this list my ‘Prairie Fire’ Crabapple trees provide mid-winter season fruit; obviously with our colder Ottawa weather, the timing of this list is off. It is still useful though, if you use it more as a guide for which Crabapples are ready earlier, in the middle, or later. Since My ‘Rosthern’ Crabapples are ready quite early, and ‘Prairie Fire’ is ready now, I’d like to add another Crabapple that will be ready later in winter.

The popularity of Crabapple trees in urban areas encourages fruit-eating Robins to hang around in winter. According to the Michigan State University Extension page American Robin: Harbringer of spring or year-round resident?, Robin migration is determined more by food supply than temperature. In winter, they form nomadic flocks that show up wherever there is abundant fruit.

The commonly-available Crabapple cultivars aren’t native. However, in Bringing Nature Home, Douglas Tallamy explains that these non-native Crabapples are very similar to native trees (page 166). They are successfully used by the moth and butterfly caterpillars that use native Crabapples as a host plant. I have never seen native Crabapple trees for sale, so at lease non-native ones seem okay to plant too.

American Goldfinch seed buffet: why I no longer deadhead flowers

While we’ve had birdseed feeders for years, we never saw birds eating seeds directly off of plants — because there were no seeds for them to eat. In the past, I painstakingly cut spent flowers to keep the garden looking tidy. Each fall I cut back plants, again, to keep them tidy. Tidy gardens aren’t very useful to birds though, or any other wildlife.

A not-so-tidy garden full of life

Now I grow many native plants that provide nectar and pollen for pollinators, leaves for insects to eat, and nutritious seeds and berries for birds. I’m aiming for a more naturalistic style. Instead of deadheading flowers and cutting them back each autumn, I leave them as a seed buffet for birds to eat from late summer well into winter.

While the garden doesn’t look as tidy, the seed heads do provide structure and visual interest until the deep winter snow covers them up. It’s also a lot less work! With these simple changes, we’re rewarded with beautiful birds visiting our plants, and hours of entertainment.

Cirque du Goldfinch

We now attract lots of bright yellow American Goldfinches, sometimes called wild canaries. I recently discovered that a group of Goldfinches is called a Charm. While they’re eating seeds off of plants, they certainly live up to their name. When we hear their excited twittering, we know to look at their favourite plants to find them. Once we spot stems swaying wildly back-and-forth, and bending toward the ground, we know exactly where they are. Time to get out the binoculars and camera. (They are easily spooked if you get too close, or move around too quickly, so we observe them from a distance.)

Goldfinches remind me of circus acrobats — swiftly climbing stem poles, carefully shuffling along bent stems like tightropes, and even hanging upside down. They’ll do whatever it takes to reach the tasty seeds. I have yet to capture their gymnastics on video, so photos will have to do.

A male Goldfinch climbing a stem. (August 22, 2019)
Not to be out-done, this female Goldfinch is also carefully climbing toward a Purple Coneflower. (August 21, 2019)
Balancing on a tightrope… (August 18, 2019)
… reaching seeds, at last. (August 21, 2019)
Surveying the flowers in our mini-meadow for another snack. (August 21, 2019)

What do the preceding photos have in common? Purple Coneflowers, a southern Ontario native plant — and a Goldfinch delicacy. In our front and back yards, they also enjoy the seeds of Cup Plant, Brown-and Black-eyed Susans, and both Woodland and Tall Sunflowers. All of these yellow flowers provide good camouflage, as well as good food. These flowers are all composites — meaning that they are actually many small flowers grouped together in single flower-like structures — so they pack lots of seeds in one spot.

Last year, we also watched Goldfinches eating Anise Hyssop seeds.

Male and female Goldfinches eating Cup Plant seeds. (July 27, 2019)

Plants preferable to feeders

By providing Goldfinches with plenty of seeds on plants, we’ve reduced their reliance on feeders. Finches are highly susceptible to the Finch Eye Disease, which spreads easily from infected birds to other finches when they all use the same feeder. You can also reduce the risk by bleaching feeders regularly. While the disease itself isn’t always fatal, it makes it more difficult for infected birds to see, find food, and avoid predators. I have seen infected House Finches use our feeders in the past, so I try my best to follow this expert advice.

In the fall garden

In the summer, we usually see Goldfinches in breeding pairs. In the fall, they hang out in busy, chattering flocks. For several days, we watched them eating native clematis (Virgin’s Bower) seeds in the backyard hedgerow.

Goldfinches picking Virgin’s Bower (native clematis) seeds out of the fluff. (October 26, 2019) I hadn’t even noticed these seed clusters until the birds drew attention to them.

While they aren’t long-distance migrants, they do move south when the cold weather arrives. All About Birds explains that they “move south in winter following a pattern that seems to coincide with regions where the minimum January temperature is no colder than 0 degrees Fahrenheit on average.”

By November, only a few tough Goldfinches were still visiting the garden. We had an unusually cold and snowy spell in mid-November, so I’m sure this bird wished he’d joined the other Goldfinches that had already flown south.

This Goldfinch is still eating Purple Coneflower seeds, as well as hulled sunflower seeds from the feeder, on a cold and cloudy day. (November 15, 2019)

Bathing beauties

Goldfinches eat so many seeds because they are strict vegetarians. They even feed their babies seed mush, unlike other songbirds that feed insects to their young. With a diet of dry seeds, they often visit our artificial stream to drink and bathe.

A handsome gent’, in his bright breeding plumage, about to take a dip. (August 18, 2019)
Lots of Goldfinches, maybe juveniles, at the stream. (October 13, 2019)

Late nesters

American Goldfinches nest in mid-summer, which is late compared to other birds.

Adorable baby Goldfinches crowded into their nest in a friend’s Maple tree. Photo by Christa Metcalf.

According to All About Birds, they wait until milkweed and thistle fluff is available to line their nests. They’re also waiting for an abundant supply of fresh seeds to feed their chicks.

I’m allowing Common Milkweed to spread in a corner of our yard to feed Monarch caterpillars. I’ve also grew a few native, non-aggressive Pasture Thistles for Goldfinches. Perhaps these milkweed and thistle patches will also entice Goldfinches to nest in our yard next year.

Summer berries and Catbirds in the hedgerow

Our maturing hedgerow is becoming ideal bird habitat. As it fills in, it provides cover and nesting locations. It also has lots of fruit and insects to offer, which are important foods for our feathered guests. This year, the hedgerow even attracted a new bird species to our yard.

Gray Catbirds

In August, I began spotting a shy bird about the size of a Cardinal or Robin. It was always lurking in the shadows of shrub and tree foliage, so it was difficult to see its colour or any distinctive markings. Finally, it donned on me that it was a Gray Catbird — a very plain, shadowy bird indeed! If you look carefully (below), you can see it does have a darker cap, and a brownish patch under its tail. Our identification was certain once we heard its croaky, mewing call that it is named after.

A Gray Catbird hanging out in the Lilacs waiting for a turn to bathe in the stream.

We eventually realized we had 3 Gray Catbirds in the yard. I’m not sure if they were early migrants or were taking up residence to feed hungry juveniles. They were here for at least three weeks.

Hedgerow feast

According to the Cornell University Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds, and the Audubon Society, Gray Catbirds live in dense tangles of shrubs, vines and small trees — just like our backyard hedgerow. I’m trilled to have successfully created a home for them in urban Ottawa. Like I always say, “plant it and they will come.”

Gray Catbirds eat insects and berries, which is why they enjoyed the hedgerow. The native shrubs are host plants for hundreds of kinds of moths and butterflies; their caterpillars are an important bird food, especially for baby birds. Many of the shrubs also produce berries. We watched the Catbirds eating berries from a Serviceberry tree, Gray and Red Osier Dogwoods, and American Elderberry shrubs.

Berry clusters still on a Red Osier Dogwood in the front yard, in the fall.
A Gray Catbird eating berries in a Gray Dogwood bush. This shrub is part of a younger hedgerow we planted last year along our neighbours’ new fence.
With the cool spring and early summer, few pollinators visited the Elderberry flowers, so we had a mediocre crop on our 3 shrubs. The Catbirds quickly ate them all.
Some kind of wild cherry, possibly Chokecherry, that has been growing and suckering along the back fence for years. Apparently, Catbirds also enjoy these berries.

Hunting for insects

Two Catbirds, possibly juveniles, looking for insects below in the pots of seedlings I still hadn’t planted yet.
Taking a closer look at the pots of plants.

Many native perennials are host plants for moths and butterflies. My Wild Lupine seedlings, that were still sitting in pots, must have been very tasty because we found several kinds of caterpillars eating the leaves. The Catbirds were probably checking out my little potted plants because they housed soft, protein-packed snacks.

A Painted Lady caterpillar on Wild Lupine leaves.
An identified, furry caterpillar also eating Wild Lupine leaves.

The Catbirds also looked for insects in the vegetable garden I created in front of the hedgerow.

A Catbird eyeing me suspiciously from the tomato plants. Maybe it was eating Tomato Hornworm caterpillars. Thanks for the help!

I hope these entertaining Catbird guests return to our backyard bed and breakfast again next year.

Ornamental berries to brighten winter days

The native shrubs in our yard not only feature beautiful autumn leaves, they also produce colourful berries. Birds leave some kinds of berries alone until late winter, or even the following spring, because they aren’t very tasty. These natural ornaments are a welcome pop of colour in our dreary brown or white snowy yard.

Winterberry holly

I am baffled why Winterberry holly shrubs aren’t planted more often. Their berries turn a stunning scarlet in late summer, and are contrasted by yellow leaves in fall. Since the snow in Ottawa eventually flattens most perennials and grasses, I think shrubs are the only reliable way to add winter interest in the garden. Conifers, and shrubs with colourful berries and stems, will stick up above the snow when the rest of the garden has disappeared. I love these bright berries so much that I planted more Winterberry shrubs this year.

Winterberry’s scarlet berries are spectacular against our gray house. (November 2019)

Winterberries need some space because you must have at least two of them — a male, and a female that will produce the berries. If you have room, you can group up to five female shrubs with one male. I bought my Winterberries from Green Thumb Garden Centre in Ottawa, where they label which ones are male and female, in case you’re shopping before the berries have formed.

Although Winterberry shrubs are naturally found in wet areas, mine grow and fruit just fine in average conditions. However, if it gets too dry in the summer, the unripe berries will drop off. They fruit best in full sun, but I still get lots of berries in part shade.

For most of the growing season, Winterberry hollies are inconspicuous. Their flowers are tiny, but attracts lots of equally tiny pollinators.

Winterberry’s tiny flowers. (June 2019)

Highbush Cranberry viburnum

Highbush Cranberries produce plentiful clusters of true red berries. I planted five of them in a row as a mini-hedge in the front pollinator garden. In the spring, they have large, white, saucer-like flower heads.

Clusters of Highbush Cranberries covered in our first snow fall. (November 2019)

Despite their attractive flowers and berries, I’m not sure I would plant Highbush Cranberry shrubs again. They’re a favourite food of the introduced Viburnum Leaf Beetle, which is a problem pest here in Ottawa. I had read that this viburnum species was particularly vulnerable to attack, but I didn’t take the warnings seriously enough. The larvae and beetles eat many tiny holes, making the leaves look lacey, and eventually skeletonizing them.

Viburnum Leaf Beetle damage caused by their larvae. (May 2019)

So far, my Highbush Cranberry viburnums are only partially damaged each year, and continue to thrive. I did see Ladybugs mating and laying eggs on the leaves, so they may have controlled some of the larvae. I also saw wasps around the shrubs (before they flowered), so perhaps they were also killing larvae.

Crabapples

My non-native crabapple trees also hold their fruit for a long time. I chose varieties, ‘Rosthern’ and ‘Prairie Fire’, that produce small fruits that birds can eat. The birds and chipmunks preferred the orange-yellow ‘Rosthern’ crabapples, which soften early, and ate them all by November.

‘Prairie Fire’ crabapples in November.

Of course, crabapple trees also have pretty, fragrant flowers in the spring that are loved by all kinds of pollinators and people.

‘Prairie Fire’ Crabapple flowers in May with an unidentified bee collecting pollen.

Emergency bird food

We’re most familiar with the seed-eating birds that frequent our feeders. When natural seed sources, like conifers and flower seed heads, are gone — and if our feeders are empty — these birds will eat berries. The berries that remain in winter are birds’ least favourite ones. As the berries freeze and thaw throughout winter, they become sweeter, or at least palatable to birds. They are a critical food source in late winter and early spring when other foods are gone.

Also, not all birds are able to eat seeds because their bills aren’t suitable for cracking them or pecking at them. Instead, they eat insects — and berries when there are no insects. These birds migrate south to spend the winter where there are plenty of insects to eat.

When migrating birds return north in spring, they’re gambling that the weather will have warmed enough for their insect food to be available. This past spring (2019) was unusually cool, so few insects were active when early migrating birds arrived. They had to rely on remaining berries, as well as spring flower and leaf buds, to sustain them until the temperature rose and insects appeared.

The loss of natural habitat, and the native, berry-producing shrubs that grow there, means that birds are left with less emergency food at the end of winter and early spring. I hope that I am helping a few birds at this critical time by planting native shrubs in my yard.

Kaleidoscope of fall colours: native shrubs in our yard

In 2016, I began planting native shrubs around the perimeter of our yard to provide food and shelter for birds. Although most of the shrubs are small, they still put on a spectacular show each autumn. Their bright colours are a beacon to birds signalling where they’ll find ripe berries, seeds, and nuts to eat.

Reds

Virginia Creeper vines on the back hedgerow in late September. These vines have been here for years and were probably ‘planted’ by birds sitting on the overhead wires.
Clove Currant (fan-shaped leaves) in front, and Serviceberry (oval leaves) in back. Usually, the Serviceberries turn orange, but this year they are red. A few purple Russian Sage spires are peeking through the foliage. To help screen our view of the road, I planted a mixed hedgrow of coniferous and deciduous shrubs near the driveway.
‘Low-grow’ Fragrant Sumac leaves turn shades of orange and red, especially when they’re planted in a sunny spot. This cultivar acts as a ground cover and is inconspicuous until fall.
Highbush Blueberries just starting to turn. These 10-year-old shrubs are now part of a new hedgerow along one side of our backyard. Each winter, rabbits eat them down to the ground, so they’re only about a foot tall and have only ever produced a few berries. I really should protect them this winter.
Rabbits spared the Wild Raisin viburnums last winter, so they’re now about 2 feet tall. The rabbits like to eat all my viburnums.

Oranges

One of the American Hazelnut shrubs I planted this year (2019). Their apricot fall colour is stunning, and I plan to add a few more next year. Beaked Hazels are native to the Ottawa area, but I could only find American Hazelnut shrubs, which are native to Southwestern Ontario.
My Chokeberry shrubs in the front yard are in a fair bit of shade, so they don’t produce many flowers or berries. They still turn bright orange and red each autumn.

Yellows

The brilliant yellow leaves of a Spicebush, and intense red leaves of a Chokeberry stand out against our grey house. Spicebush is a Southwestern Ontario native.
The clear yellow Common Witch Hazel leaves really stand out on the north side of our cedar hedge. This poor shrub has been moved around a few times, but is settling well into this new spot.
Another Witch Hazel’s yellow leaves are beginning to fade, revealing its interesting spidery flowers. Believe it or not, Witch Hazels bloom throughout October and into November, even if it snows.

Underutilized beauties

For most of my gardening life, I never planted native shrubs. I don’t even remember seeing them in nurseries. While I eventually planted them for birds, I was pleasantly surprised by their stunning berries and autumn leaves. Why aren’t they more widely available in nurseries, and used more in our yards? I wish I had discovered them earlier.

Two of the most common shrubs that are planted for fall colour are Burning Bush and Japanese Barberry — both of which are invasive in Ontario. For more information, visit the Ontario Invading Species Awareness Program pages for Winged Euonymus (Burning Bush) and Japanese Barberry. Native Highbush Blueberries and Chokeberry shrubs, both pictured above, are frequently recommended as alternatives.

Visit my page Buying Native Plants in Ottawa for a list of nurseries where you purchase native shrubs for your yard. You can also try other local nurseries, but their selection is hit-or-miss.

Autumn inspiration

Sadly, the kaleidoscope of autumn leaf colours doesn’t last long. I even missed my chance to take photos of some of them. So, I decided to permanently capture these lovely colours by knitting a shawl. I gathered an assortment of leaves from around the yard, and chose matching yarns for my project.

The start of my Find Your Fade shawl (pattern by Andrea Mowry) using a mix of Canadian hand-dyed yarns from Koigu and Artfil. The dark, burgundy leaves are from Grey dogwood and Red Osier dogwood.