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Creating a Haven: Spring Plants to Help Wildlife

Creating a Haven: Spring Plants to Help Wildlife

Spring is a time of renewal and growth. It’s also a great time to start thinking about ways to help your local wildlife thrive. By incorporating certain plants into your garden or landscape, you can provide food and habitat for the creatures that are part of your local ecosystem. It’s the time of the year to choose spring plants that help wildlife for your location and climate.

To help you find plants that grow well in your region, this guide provides recommendations according to different plant hardiness zones. If you’re not familiar with your zone, you can find it by visiting the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.

USDA Zone Hardiness Map

Zones 1 & 2

Located at the northern border of the Central and Eastern U.S. and including most of Alaska, plant hardiness zones 1 and 2 are the coldest, with exceptionally low temperatures and short growing seasons. Together, these zones’ average annual low temperatures usually vary from -60 to – 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so we’ll focus on some hardy plants that can survive in this zone.

Wild Ginger

Canadian wild ginger grows in forested areas of North America and Asia and can be grown in U.S. hardiness zones 2-8. Wild ginger produces a spicy scent that, although not too strong to most humans, attracts all kinds of critters to its flowers, including vital pollinators like bees and butterflies. Its seeds are covered in a fleshy, nutrient-rich material that attracts ants. They carry the seeds to their underground nests, where they eat the fleshy coating and leave the seed to germinate.

While it’s resistant to deer, a variety of animals find food and shelter around wild ginger. Its leaves and roots are a tempting feast for animals such as pocket gophers and slugs, while its dense foliage provides a haven for birds, squirrels, and other small creatures.

Wild ginger
Asarum canadense, or wild ginger. Credit: Chris S. Packard, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Siberian Iris

Like all irises, Siberians have strappy, sword-like foliage, which makes this plant visually appealing even after the blooms have gone, providing a texture akin to that of ornamental grass. Its blue-violet flower most commonly attracts bees and also attracts butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators. As pollinators collect pollen from one flower and move on to another, they also leave behind some of the pollen they picked up. This cross-pollination allows for greater genetic diversity and stronger plant populations.

The Siberian iris does best in moist soil or next to a pond or other body of water. It is an important source of shelter and protection for small creatures attracted to such areas, such as frogs, salamanders, and various insects. The plant’s leaves grow tall and strong, providing a safe hiding place for small creatures.

Siberian iris
Iris sibirica, or Siberian iris. Credit: Derek Ramsey, GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons

Zones 3 & 4

Located primarily in the upper Midwest and plains states, such as the Dakotas, Idaho, and Wyoming, and some of northern New England, regions in zone 3 and zone 4 have a moderate to cold climate. These zones’ average lowest temperatures vary from -30 to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperatures in these regions vary significantly between day and night as well as summer and winter.

Here are a few helpful plants that can thrive in both growing zones due to their adaptability to cold climates and shorter growing seasons.

Gaillardias

With their bright petals in shades of red, orange, and yellow, gaillardias are a beacon for all sorts of pollinators, from bees and butterflies to hummingbirds and moths. In addition, gaillardia seeds are a valuable source of food for birds, such as titmice and chickadees. However, this plant is resistant to both rabbits and deer.

The plant’s deep roots help prevent soil erosion and enhance soil quality, while the dense foliage acts as natural mulch, helping to keep moisture and nutrients in the soil. This, in turn, benefits all the other plants and animals in the area by creating a healthier, more diverse ecosystem.

Gaillardia
Gaillardias. Credit: Syrio, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Holly

The bright red fruits of the Holly plant are a favorite food source for many birds, including mourning doves, flickers, and wild turkeys. These birds are drawn to the high fat and calorie content of the berries, which help them survive the cold winter months. A range of mammals, from chipmunks and squirrels to raccoons and deer feed on the berries and leaves. In addition, holly’s dense foliage provides a natural hiding place for animals like mice, rabbits, and even deer, protecting them from predators and harsh weather conditions.

Holly berries
Holly berries. Credit: Stuart Wilding

Zone 5

Extending across the central mountain states, parts of the Midwest, and up into New England, zone 5 regions have mild summers and cold winters with lowest temperatures averaging between -10°F and -20°F. With a short growing season, gardeners in this zone still have a wide range of plants to pick from, including many perennials, shrubs, and trees that can withstand the cold winters.

Hostas

Hosta lancifolia produces flowers that are a favorite of hummingbirds, which will often feed on the nectar inside. The leaves of the hosta plant are a favorite of snails and slugs, which in turn can be a food source for larger predators such as birds and small mammals. Hostas also serve as a haven for a range of beneficial insects, such as ladybugs and lacewings.

Flower of hosta plant
The flower of the Hosta lancifolia. Credit: Salicyna, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bee Balm

As its name suggests, this perennial flowering herb attracts bees as well as other beneficial insects, including bumble bees, predatory wasps, hawk moths, and butterflies. While bee balm’s summer blooms offer nectar to pollinators, in the fall, its tiny seeds help sustain seed-eating birds like goldfinches, redpolls, and sparrows.

Bee balm flower
Bee balm. Credit: MattysFlicks, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Zones 6 & 7

Zone 6 spans across the central United States, from the central Pacific Northwest south through the Southwest, continuing through the Midwest to the Middle Atlantic and southern New England. Zone 7 begins in the Pacific Northwest but is primarily located in northern regions of the Southern states, and through the South Atlantic states. These zones have a moderate to low risk of frost or freeze damage to plants.

Sunflowers

Sunflowers are among the best spring plants to help wildlife. The brilliant, showy blooms provide a plentiful amount of nectar and pollen, which can aid in the maintenance of a healthy population of pollinators in your region.

The sunflower is one of the most nutritious food sources for birds and can help support them through the winter months. Ladybugs, lacewings, and other beneficial insects will often find a safe place to hide or lay their eggs in the leaves and stems of sunflower plants.

Sunflowers are hardy and can thrive in zones 4 through 9. Here are a few more fascinating facts about this lovely heliotropic plant.

Sunflowers
Sunflowers. Credit: Vengolis, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Redbuds

The showy spring blossoms of the redbud tree add a pop of color to any landscape, but even more important is their value to wildlife. Because they are early bloomers, redbuds are an important source of food for honeybees and other pollinators. Their blossoms provide hungry pollinators with a reliable supply of nectar and pollen in the early spring when other food sources are scarce.

Redbud trees also produce seeds that are a nourishing food source for many bird species as well as deer and squirrels. Their dense branch structure and heart-shaped leaves provide excellent protection and hiding spots for smaller creatures.

Eastern redbud tree in bloom
Eastern redbud. Credit: Dan Keck from Ohio, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Zones 8 & 9

Zone 8 includes coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest but is primarily located in the southern quarter of the United States. Zone 9 stretches down the West Coast, southern Texas and Louisiana, and central Florida. These regions have a relatively mild winter and a long growing season. The lowest temperatures are between 10 and 30 degrees, so you can grow a wider range of plants, from classic vegetables to citrus, avocado, banana, papaya, and hibiscus.

Salvia

Salvia’s colorful flowers provide an abundance of nectar and pollen, which can maintain a healthy population of pollinators in your area. Bees and butterflies in particular love this plant. In addition, its leaves and stems are frequently used by ladybugs, lacewings, and other beneficial insects as a protected place to hide or a spot to lay their eggs.

Bee on salvia blossom
Salvia. Credit: Wouter Hagens, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Petunias

Colorful petunias are another plant that is popular with pollinators. In addition, they produce a natural insecticide that helps ward off pesky parasites like leafhoppers, asparagus beetles, aphids, and squash bugs. While this doesn’t aid wildlife, it does help repel and protect other plants in your garden from harmful pests.

Petunias
Petunias. Credit: Indrajit Das, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Zones 10 & 11

Zone 10 includes southeast California, the southernmost tip of Texas, south Florida, and much of Hawaii. Zone 11 includes the Florida Keys and most of Hawaii’s Big Island. The regions in these zones have a tropical or subtropical climate with very mild winters and a long growing season. Average lowest winter temperatures range between 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hibiscus

With its vibrant colors and eye-catching blooms, hibiscus is a garden favorite. The large flowers attract bees, butterflies, pollinating flies, and hummingbirds. By providing a steady supply of nectar and pollen, it helps support these important pollinator populations.

Orange hibiscus flower
Hibiscus. Credit: Vengolis, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bird of Paradise

The nectar-rich orange and blue blooms of the bird of paradise attract various pollinators, including hummingbirds. Birds may use the showy, trumpet-shaped blooms as a perch to rest and take a break from their busy day. Furthermore, lizards, frogs, and other small creatures can find a hiding place within the robust leaves and stems of these plants.

Bird of paradise flower
Bird of paradise. Credit: Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nurturing Nature

Adding these plants to your garden can offer benefits including food, cover, and nesting sites to a wide variety of wildlife species. Spring planting provides several benefits for people, too. Gardening gets us outside in the fresh air, where we can connect with nature. Gardens can provide a source of fresh fruits and vegetables for people as well as nature, and they offer a welcoming place to relax and enjoy the outdoors.

About the Author

Tony ManhartTony Manhart is the founder and editor in chief at Gardening Slash. Tony’s enthusiasm and rich experience in all things related to growing plants have led him to share his knowledge with gardening aficionados all over the world. When he is not working around his garden, Tony spends his time writing tips and tricks on various subjects related to plant cultivation and soil maintenance.

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