Creating a Bird & Butterfly Haven Garden

Craig Stark
Ecoscapes Sustainable Landscaping

Many of us look at gardens as a way to create something, enjoy the outdoors, and restore our spirit. As a landscape designer and contractor I am often asked, “How do I draw more birds and butterflies to my gardens?” I have always looked at attracting them from the point of view of what plants they eat. However, I think I have been missing several vital parts of the puzzle. What if we looked at everything they need and not just the pretty flower filled with nectar? Just like humans, birds and butterflies need food, shelter, and water. Here, I’ll explore each of these needs individually, although they are often interconnected.

FOOD: What do birds eat? Well, a lot of things: nectar, worms, insects, berries, and other fruits. When trying to create an ecosystem that is hospitable to birds, we should create places that are also hospitable to worms and invertebrates, as well as adding plants that provide nectar and berries. The diet of butterflies is simpler: generally nectar from flowers.

SHELTER: What do birds need for shelter? This varies widely between species. Often a nest in a tree works, but some like shrubs, and yet others nest on the ground. Some birds like the protection of evergreens, and some like our small native trees and shrubs with thinner branches that keep ground predators away. Many birds need standing dead trees, which we often clear from urban areas. Consider leaving the trunk of a tree on your lot next time a tree dies.

Butterflies need structure as well to keep them out of potentially fatal rains and to provide a place to roost at night. They also need places to safely lay eggs and a place for their larvae to feed and eventually pupate and complete the life cycle.

WATER: Finally, both birds and butterflies need a clean and safe water source. For example: Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) holds water in its leaves after rain events and often dries up before mosquitoes’ eggs can hatch, therefore making a great source of water for birds and butterflies without breeding pesky mosquitoes. Birdbaths and butterfly water dishes will also work. Be sure to keep these filled with fresh water.

Creating an Ecosystem :

Looking at all these needs makes this task seem very complex, especially when you consider all of the species. Essentially, you just have to supply the basic needs of the species you would like to attract. Following is a list of many plants that are good for butterflies and birds as well as some cultural practices that can help create a healthy ecosystem for them, even if on a small scale. Again we need to create an ecosystem, even if it is on a small scale, providing all the necessities for their existence.

I always start any landscape design with trees or at least one tree. Trees are vital for most songbirds of the upper Midwest, as well as being good shelter for butterflies. Then I look at small understory trees and shrubs. They provide the layer that is often completely missing in our urban environments, because we have been trained to like park-like landscapes. In much of the Twin Cities, this layer has been replaced by invasive buckthorn, which has very little, if any, habitat value for our native feathered friends. Finally, I try to integrate native grasses, sedges and flowers. For most gardeners this is the part we focus on already, but we can do better by sticking to native plants.

When selecting plant species, locally native species are the best for creating habitat for our native fauna. It seems obvious that our native fauna has evolved with our native flora, but we have overlooked this and opted for pretty exotic cultivars instead. The nursery industry has pushed for bigger, brighter, and showier in our cultivated plants and this has resulted in a large-scale replacement of native plants, especially in urban and suburban environments. The result is habitat loss for our beloved native fauna because many of these non-natives cultivated plants do not provide them quality habitat.

The following list contains species that have significant habitat value for our native birds and butterflies. Some species of birds and butterflies need specific plants, called host plants. Many of the plants below are host plants for specific species, while others will attract a wide range of insects to feed our bird populations or supply nectar to many species. When selecting plants for your bird and butterfly garden, the more diversity of native plants you use, the more animal diversity you will be privileged to experience.


Landscape Plants for Birds and Butterflies

Trees & Shrubs:

Bur Oak – Quercus macrocarpa

White Oak – Quercus alba

Red Oak – Quercus rubra

Northern Pin Oak – Quercus ellipsoidalis

Swamp White Oak – Quercus bicolor

Bebb’s Willow – Salix rostrata

Pussy Willow – Salix discolor

Prairie Willow – Salix humilis

Black Willow – Salix nigra

Black Cherry – Prunus serotina

Pin Cherry – Prunus pensylvanica

America Wild Plum – Prunus americana

Chokecherry – Prunus virginiana

River Birch – Betula nigra

Paper Birch – Betula papyrifera

Yellow Birch – Betula alleghaniensis

Bigtooth Aspen – Populus grandidentata

Quaking Aspen – Populus tremuloides

Prairie Crabapple – Malus ioensis

Sugar Maple – Acer saccharum

Red Maple – Acer rubrum

American Elm – Ulmus americana (Dutch Elm Disease Resistant Selections)

Hackberry – Celtis occidentalis

Downy Serviceberry – Amelanchier arborea

Saskatoon Serviceberry – Amelanchier alnifolia

Black Chokeberry – Aronia melanocarpa

Pagoda Dogwood – Cornus alternifolia

Red-osier Dogwood – Cornus sericea

American Hazel – Corylus americana

Downy Hawthorn – Crataegus mollis

Showy Mountain Ash – Sorbus decora

Bush Honeysuckle – Diervilla lonicera

Ninebark – Physocarpus opulifolius

Grasses & Sedges:

Little Bluestem – Schizachyrium scoparium

Big Bluestem – Andropogon gerardii

Indian Grass – Sorghastrum nutans

Side Oats Grama – Bouteloua curtipendula

Bebb’s Sedge – Carex bebbii

Fox Sedge – Carex vulpinoidea

Bottlebrush Sedge – Carex hystericina

Longhair Sedge – Carex comosa


Anise Hyssop – Agastache foeniculum

Giant Hyssop – Agastache scrophulariifolia

Pearly Everlasting – Anaphalis margaritacea

Wild Columbine – Aquilegia canadensis

Swamp Milkweed – Asclepias incarnata

Butterfly Weed – Asclepias tuberosa

Whorled Milkweed – Asclepias verticillata

Smooth Aster – Aster laevis

New England Aster – Aster novae angliae

Lance Leaf Coreopsis – Coreopsis lanceolata

Prairie Coreopsis – Coreopsis palmata

White Prairie Clover – Dalea candida

Purple Prairie Clover – Dalea purpurea

Pale Purple Coneflower – Echinacea pallida

Fireweed – Epilobium angustifolium

Purple Joe Pye Weed – Eupatorium purpureum

Sneezeweed – Helenium autumnale

Sawtooth Sunflower – Helianthus grosseserratus

Maximilian Sunflower – Helianthus maximiliani

Rough Blazing Star – Liatris aspera

Northern Plains Blazing Star – Liatris ligulistylis

Thick Spike Blazing Star – Liatris pycnostachya

Marsh Blazing Star – Liatris spicata

Scaly Blazing Star – Liatris squarrosa

Cardinal Flower – Lobelia cardinalis

Great Blue Lobelia – Lobelia siphilitica

Wild Blue Lupine – Lupinus perennis

Bergamot – Monarda fistulosa

Smooth Penstemon – Penstemon digitalis

Yellow Coneflower – Ratibida pinnata

Orange Coneflower – Rudbeckia fulgida

Compass Plant – Silphium laciniatum

Cup Plant – Silphium perfoliatum

Ohio Goldenrod – Solidago ohiensis

Showy Goldenrod – Solidago speciosa

Blue Vervain – Verbena hastata

Hoary Vervain – Verbena stricta

Ironweed – Vernonia fasciculata

Culver’s Root – Veronicastrum virginicum

Read Up

Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota, by Welby R. Smith, University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

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