Blue Ridge Naturalist: Non-native Plants Can Be Remarkably Nature-friendly, Part Two


© Marlene A. Condon

Despite what horticultural lore says, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers do no lasting harm to healthy trees and shrubs when they make their shallow wells to obtain sap. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)
Despite what horticultural lore says, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers do no lasting harm to healthy trees and shrubs when they make their shallow wells to obtain sap. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)

Not all non-native plants are created equal, nor are all yards suitable for their introduction. If you live near a natural area that is composed primarily of native plants, or if you live near wetlands, then you certainly should try to avoid growing alien plants that might spread into these relatively un-degraded areas.

However, if you want to start helping wildlife even though your yard consists mostly of subsoil, which is not very conducive to the growth of native plants, there are numerous alien plants that are already part-and-parcel of our environment that are wonderfully nature-friendly. I’ll start with three non-native woody plants I originally chose for their red foliage—my favorite color.

When I planted Chinese Photinia (Photinia serrulata), I had no idea how valuable this multi-stemmed shrub would be to wildlife and my wildlife viewing. In winter, Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows sleep among the branches, being replaced by Northern Cardinals and Eastern Phoebes in spring. I’ve even had an Eastern Screech Owl perch in there while waiting for darkness to descend on late-winter and very early-spring days.

What I’ve found most interesting, however, is the heavy use of these plants by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Birds of the north that migrate to Virginia for the winter, these woodpeckers use their beaks to drill small holes (“wells”) into the bark of trees from which sap oozes. This sweet liquid provides them with carbohydrates, a source of quick energy.

Sapsuckers have visited my photinias regularly throughout the decades and it’s obvious. An inspection of the trunks reveals rows and rows of old and new sap wells, an undeniable sign of the affinity these birds possess for photinia sap. But they aren’t the only ones that want a sweet drink! Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, flying insects (on warmish winter days), and even Gray Squirrels visit the wells.

And as if this wildlife usage wasn’t enough, the small white spring flowers attract so many bees that you can hear the loud buzzing well before you are within sight of the plants, and the resulting red fruits feed birds and mammals come fall.

My plants are almost 30 years old but have never produced a seedling, so Chinese Photinia is not likely to spread of its own accord. I should warn you that the flowers don’t smell very good, but because the blooming time is rather short, it’s not something you have to put up with for a long time.

Lastly, to take advantage of all of the benefits these plants offer to wildlife, they should be allowed to grow into their natural shape and height (up to 30 feet tall), rather than grown as a constantly sheared hedge, as is so often done. Photinia hedges are almost invariably doomed to leaf spot (caused by a fungus) because the pruning causes a thick growth of leaves that can’t get good air circulation to dry them.

It should also be noted that pruning is injurious and really shouldn’t be done unless it’s absolutely necessary. Woody plants can handle a bit of pruning because they’ve evolved with animals that feed upon them, which of course, prunes them. But too much feeding by animals or pruning by people can kill plants.

I love the red leaves of Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum), but I also love its value to wildlife, which came as quite a surprise and delight!

When the trees’ buds start to swell, they are ready to be eaten by Gray Squirrels and White-throated Sparrows that visit often. The buds they miss develop into blooms that bring the insects swarming: flies, wasps, a multitude of tiny bees, and butterflies, such as the Spring Azure and Tiger Swallowtail. The resulting seeds are eaten by Gray Squirrels.

Japanese Maples are very slow-growing trees, so you’ll be resigned to enjoying only their beauty until their wildlife potential develops.

I first became familiar with Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) when I was a college student at Virginia Tech. A yard I walked by on my way to town had a huge specimen that was spectacular in the fall when its leaves turned a bright red. I knew I had to have one of these plants some day when I was permanently settled somewhere!

Although bashed as an invasive plant, Burning Bush is useful to many kinds of animals. The little yellow spring blooms attract a variety of tiny insects, especially bees. Small winged fruits develop that feed Northern Cardinals and White-throated Sparrows as well as Gray Squirrels. And in late winter, Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows visit daily to feed on the enlarging buds.

I’ve observed White-tailed Deer eating the leaves of Burning Bush. However, they only began to feed on this plant in the past few years as deer numbers were exploding in Virginia, suggesting it’s not a preferred food plant for them.

Burning Bush is originally from Asia and can indeed spread. But my own yard is so full of plants that most so-called invasive plants struggle to stay put, never mind increase in number (the reason I know experientially that these plants need a cleared area before they can start growing somewhere). If Burning Bush could be troublesome in your area, you probably shouldn’t grow one in your yard.

The Summer 2012 issue of the Butterfly Gardener was devoted to “The Great Butterfly Bush Debate” in which two butterfly gardeners took opposing stands on whether or not people should grow Buddleia davidii. This shrub, which has been widely planted as a nectar source for butterflies, is yet another plant from Asia that has spread beyond the gardener’s gate by way of seed production.

I have a Butterfly Bush that certainly does bring in butterflies. It does make seeds, but I’ve yet to find a seedling in my yard. Where I have seen this plant as an escapee from the home garden is along miles and miles of train tracks, which isn’t surprising.  Just like other plants that are referred to as invasive, Butterfly Bush can tolerate the wretched growing conditions provided courtesy of the railroad companies.

Luckily, you don’t need to grow Butterfly Bush. If you want a shrub attractive to butterflies (and bees), I highly recommend Glossy Abelia (Abelia x grandiflora) as a substitute. Developed from plants native to Asia and Mexico, this hybrid does not make seeds and thus does not move out of the area. It blooms from spring until frost, making it the perfect substitute for Butterfly Bush if your yard has poor soil.

Shrubs and small trees, unlike flower beds, do not take much effort to maintain. If you want to help wildlife without a lot of fuss and bother, by all means grow woody plants such as the ones I’ve mentioned here (with the exception, perhaps, of Burning Bush).

But to bring in the highest number of wildlife species, you require flower beds that contain a diverse array of plants in abundance, whether they are native or naturalized (which is really what “invasive” means). The easiest way to find out what will grow best in your soil is to clear a bed for plants and see what comes up. Those are the plants best suited to your growing situation and that will provide for wildlife.


  1. Good to know that the sapsuckers can get what they need without hurting the trees. That’s counter intuitive. Nothing like 30 years of watching your garden grow to establish your credibility!

    Thank you, Marlene

    • Hi Mary,

      Thank you so much for writing.

      Unfortunately, there are a LOT of horticultural myths that portray our wildlife in a negative light that it doesn’t deserve. I try very hard to correct them, but it’s difficult to fight the HUGE horticultural library of misinformation out there!

      Sadly, these myths often result in people killing wildlife needlessly, using unnecessary pesticides, and excluding animals from yards that are fast becoming the only habitat where our wildlife can find a home.

      I hope you’ll help to let folks know about sapsuckers.

      Ever so gratefully,


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