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The 5 Best Shrubs for Wildlife and Fall Color

The 5 Best Shrubs for Wildlife and Fall Color, www.agirlinhergarden.com

The 5 Best Shrubs for Wildlife and Fall Color, www.agirlinhergarden.comMy favorite thing about fall is the colors.

It seems that every plant has their own hue, yet they all blend to match each other.  Wildlife seems to love fall also. The birds seem more active, the squirrels scurry here and there. Even the deer wander far and wide taking in the season.

By planting the right shrubs, you can bring fall into your backyard. Not just the colors, but the wildlife too. The common theme for wildlife in autumn is food. If you have it, they will come. Try adding these shrubs to your backyard this autumn, and enjoy the season in years to come.

Remember, fall is for planting, so there is no excuse not to plant these today!

The 6 Best Shrubs for Wildlife and Fall Color

Smooth Sumac beginning to turn in October

Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra)

Looking for reds and oranges this autumn, look no further. This amazing shrub (or small tree) has brilliant red fall color which can fade to a bright orange. When coupled with its bright red summer fruits and its large tropical-like leaves, it is a show stopper for more than one season.

I love seeing it along the roadways this time of year, you can’t miss it. Its reds stand out sharply from the rest of the countryside.

Smooth Sumac is native almost the entire United States, and it is now found throughout the country except for a small area in Montana and North Dakota. It mostly grows 9 feet tall, but can reach 15 feet when happy.

Grow this in any dry to moist area, in full to partial sun. It’s not picky as long as it isn’t waterlogged. These shrubs have a shallow root system that spreads wide from the plant. Because of this, it can grow in rocky soil. It works great as a soil stabilizer on a dry hill. Plant this on a steep slope to prevent soil slipping.

This is not a tame garden border plant. Make sure it has plenty of room to stretch as it can be a bit aggressive in the garden.

Everything about this plant reminds me of autumn. Flowers occur on male and female plants, starting in June and going into July. The flowers start out as a cream color, but as the summer progresses turn a brilliant red. Nectar and pollen from these flowers are a favorite to any small native bees, flies, wasps, butterflies and beetles. Fruit occurs on female plants after the flowers, also a bright red. The fruit remains on the plant well into the winter, providing much-needed food for foraging birds.

Tip: Have no fear, smooth sumac is not the same plant as poison sumac. They are not even in the same family so worry about planting this amazing shrub.

Rocky Mountain Sumac (Rhus glabra ‘cismontana’) if you’re looking for a smaller variety of this shrub this western cultivar may be just what you need. It tops out at about 8 feet and still has all the characteristics of the larger plant.

Smooth Sumac Quick Facts

  • Zone 3 to 9
  • Full Sun in north to part sun
  • Dry to moist soil
  • Native to eastern United States
  • Nectar, fruits, nesting
The 6 Best Shrubs for Wildlife and Fall Color

Brandywine Viburnum fall color

Possumhaw Viburnum (Viburnum nudum)

This shrub is the answer to the boggy spot in your backyard. This viburnum is known for its maroon to dark red fall colors offset with showy berries (they are technically drupes).

This shrub begins the season in April or May with a white bloom and deep green glossy leaves. The flowers offer early season nectar and pollen to bees and other pollinators. The fruits are a favorite of songbirds, especially robins. They are also eaten by cardinals and woodpeckers and small mammals like its namesake the possum.

Native to the southeastern United States, the Possumhaw is found naturally along streams, swamps and moist slopes. This is a great plant for a wet spot in the backyard.

Brandywine Viburnum (Viburnum nudum ‘Bulk’) – for those with smaller backyards the Brandywine cultivar is your plant. Growing to about 6 feet tall and wide, its is a great back of the border plant or to block a poor view. It also has the bonus of having pink and blue berries in the same cluster! Unlike other viburnum, Brandywine doesn’t seem to need another cultivar to have fruit. So, if your yard isn’t big enough for two viburnums, just plant this one!

Winterthur Viburnum (Viburnum nudum ‘Winterthur’) – another nice cultivar, this grows to about 6 feet and has brighter fall leaves than the straight species plant. Unlike Brandywine, you will need a second, genetically different possumhaw to have fruit. I suggest planting Brandywine and Winterthur together for the best fruit set. The fruit on this shrub begins as bubblegum pink and then turn a deep blue as they ripen.

Tip: As much as I love this shrub, avoid planting it if you have the viburnum leaf beetle in the area.

Possumhaw Viburnum Quick Facts

  • Zone 5 to 9
  • Full Sun in north to part shade
  • Medium  to wet soil
  • Native to eastern United States west to Kentucky
  • Nectar, fruits, nesting
The 6 Best Shrubs for Wildlife and Fall Color

Spicebush turns a brilliant yellow

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

This understory shrub can live in almost full shade. This makes it great for adding a bit of color under tall trees. It begins fall with brilliant yellow leaves that really stand out.  Not only does it have beautiful yellow leaves, but red berries are hidden under them. The berries add a bit more to autumn after the leaves fall.

The Spicebush is native to the eastern United States and as far west as Kansas and Texas. This shrub is dioecious, which means it has males and females. The female shrub has the berries in fall. Only one male is needed in the area to pollinate the female shrubs. The berries are also very high in fat, which is important for birds on cold nights.

Spicebush berries are high in fat and great winter food for birds. Click To Tweet

Spicebush is fine with wet feet, so it can grow in the soggy party of the yard. Reaching about 12 feet, it is the first shrub to bloom in late winter – it has yellow flowers earlier than the non-native forsythia. Since it blooms before the insects are around, it does not provide any nectar, however it does help butterflies. It is the larval host to the Spicebush Swallowtail, Promethea Silkmoth and Eastern Swallowtail. If you have even seen a Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar, you will think the shrub is worth it!

Spicebush Quick Facts

  • Zone 4 to 9
  • Full Sun in north to almost full shade
  • Moist to wet soil
  • Native to eastern United States and Texas
  • Host plant, fruits
The 6 Best Shrubs for Wildlife and Fall Color

Devil’s Walking Stick

Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa)

This is one of my favorite plants. With its tropical looking leaves (reaching 4 feet long), spiny stems and amazing fall color, it quickly caught my eye. In autumn this shrub-like plant has black fruits held over leaves of yellows, reds, oranges and purples (sometimes all on the same plant!)

Devil’s Walking Stick is a pioneer plant and likes to grow in the understory of the forest. It is one of the first plants to grow in an area after a disturbance like a fire, tree falling or construction. It likes moist, well-drained soil in part sun. It blooms white in summer, and if you want more blooms be sure to plant it in a bit more sun. It is also juglone tolerant, so you can grow it under walnut trees. It normally tops out at 15 feet, but can reach 30 feet in some areas.

Wildlife loves this plant as much as I do. The fruits are eaten by the wood thrush, cedar waxwing, white-throated sparrow, cardinal, red fox, skunk, black bear, robins, and blue jay. Honeybees and native pollinators love the flower in the summer. Deer do browse the leaves.

I have had trouble finding this plant for sale, but finally found it at Mail Order Natives!

Devil’s Walking Stick Quick Facts

  • Zone 4 to 9
  • Full Sun to part shade
  • Moist well drained soil
  • Native to Florida to Texas, north to Ohio River Valley
  • Nectar, fruits, browse
The 5 Best Shrubs

Red Twig Dogwood berries

Red Twigged Dogwood (Cornus sericea)

One the most widely spread dogwoods, this shrub has beautiful reddish-purple fall foliage. Couple this with its bright red winter stems, white blooms in spring and white summer berries and it is a plant for all seasons!

Growing about 12 feet tall and wide, this dogwood is happy in medium to wet soil. It will also handle boggy soil. It tends to sucker more in wet soil, but if that is a problem you can remove the extra stems. It also grows in full to part shade. Native to Canada, south to Arkansas and west to New Mexico it is difficult to find a place you can’t grow this shrub.

Tip: While Red Twig Dogwood grows in many places, south of zone 7 it may suffer during hot humid weather.

It has great wildlife value also, deer browse the leaves and songbirds enjoy the berries. The songbirds share the berries with wood ducks, game birds and mice. It is the larval host to the Spring Azure Butterfly and the flowers attract long-tongued bees, wasps, flies and butterflies.

This dogwood is used mostly for its red twigs in winter. To keep them coming you have to cut the shrub back every year. Unfortunately this stops it from blooming and producing fruit, which hurts wildlife. But there is a solution. Every spring only remove ⅓ of the old stems on the plant. If you do this, you will have the red stems, flowers and berries! The ends of the branches will still have the red color also.

Because it is such an amazing shrub, there are lots of cultivars out there. If you need a smaller shrub, one with yellow twigs or just want something unique, keep reading. This is just a small sample of the types out there, there are so many more!

Arctic Fire Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Farrow’) – this version is smaller than the species. It tops out at 4 feet tall and wide. It has intensely red winter stems and tends to sucker less than other types.

Cardinal Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal’) – this cultivar is a mid-sized shrub reaching 9 feet tall. It is a fast growing version for those who want a quick privacy barrier and does create suckers.

Budd’s Yellow Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Budd’s Yellow’) – this dogwood has bright yellow winter stems instead of the red that the species is known for. It has improved disease resistance and it is a bit smaller, at 8 feet. It grows quickly. It also likes to sucker from the base so keep that in mind when choosing a spot.

Hedgerows Gold Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Hedgerows Gold’) – while the other versions of this dogwood shine the best in winter, this one is a summer favorite. It has variegated leaves that stand out from its bright red stems with gold edges. The variegation turns pink to red in autumn.

Red Twigged Dogwood Quick Facts

  • Zone 3 to 7
  • Full Sun to part shade
  • Medium to wet soil
  • Native to eastern United States, Canada, New Mexico, Nevada and California
  • Nectar, fruits, browse, host

If you are looking for another large sprawling shrub, check out this month’s Native Spotlight the Bottlebrush Buckeye!

Now that you have some ideas to bring some fall color and wildlife food to your backyard, get out there and plant some shrubs! Fall is the best time to plant and we still have plenty of autumn left. What shrubs do you want for fall color in your backyard? Tell me in the comments.

Paige Nugent

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