Biodiversity—the variety of creatures living on earth—is under threat. Humans rely on plants, insects, birds, and countless other creatures for vital functions known as ecosystem services. These services include the creation of oxygen, nutrient cycling, decomposition, and the food, fiber, and fuel humans need to survive. In Ohio and across the globe, the loss of habitat is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity.
Birds, butterflies, moths, bees, and other beneficial creatures depend on plants to provide seeds, nectar, pollen, cover, nesting sites, and nesting materials. Human development and some agricultural practices have destroyed, degraded, or fragmented many natural areas, limiting available habitat for wildlife to feed, seek cover, and rear their young. Consequently, spaces under individual control, such as backyards, decks and patios, community garden plots, and small meadows, are increasingly important to provide habitat and connect otherwise fragmented spaces.
|Monarch butterfly on a buttonbush flower. Photo by Adobe Stock.||Butterfly caterpillar. Photo by Adobe Stock.||Bumble bee gathering pollen. Photo by Adobe Stock.|
Rather than just selecting plants because of their ornamental appeal, many gardeners and householders are instead seeking plants native to Ohio to draw an assortment of living creatures to the landscape and to support the many ecosystem services these creatures provide. Growing many different plant species (also known as plant diversity) is correlated with attracting a wider diversity of creatures, such as multiple species of wild bees. Some insects, such as monarch butterflies and specialist bees, have a very narrow range of native plants they can use as food sources for their young and will not reside or raise young in landscapes that don’t include these plants. Native plants can beautify our surroundings and create essential habitats for many creatures.
Interest in using native plants in landscapes has surged in the past decade. While they used to be difficult to find for purchase, native plants can now be found at many large and small nurseries, and through mail-order catalogs. These plants are often included in landscapes of all types:
- home gardens
- commercial landscapes
- community garden plots
- public display gardens
Native plants can be defined as plants that occur naturally in a particular region where they have evolved over thousands of years to adapt to physical conditions and develop relationships with other living organisms. The trees and shrubs in this factsheet series were selected because they offer multiple benefits to a variety of creatures, support biodiversity, and create “Living Landscapes."
While the trees and shrubs reviewed in the living landscape series are native to the region and generally suitable to grow throughout Ohio, keep in mind that soil and moisture conditions vary across the state and from site to site. As with any growing or gardening situation, using the “right plant, right place” maxim is essential. Expecting a shade-loving plant that needs moist soil conditions to thrive in a sunny, dry space is a recipe for failure, even though the plant might be native to the region. It’s best to select suitable plants based on actual site conditions.
The following icons are used throughout the publication to describe the wildlife value of each plant.
Songbirds: Many species of songbirds live and breed in Ohio, and even more spend part of their lives here. Depending on the species, songbirds feed on a variety of plant-based food, including fruit, seeds, and nectar from trees and shrubs. Arthropods (insects and spiders) are an important source of protein and nutrients in many songbird diets; some songbirds eat arthropods year-round. Others consume and feed their young arthropods—especially caterpillars—during the nesting season.
Hummingbirds: Hummingbirds use nectar as a carbohydrate source to fill the majority of their daily energetic needs. However, they also need amino acids, which they obtain by gleaning insects and spiders from vegetation or webs or by catching them in flight. Hummingbirds also visit sap wells in trees, which are holes that weep sap created by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. The hummingbirds feed on the sap and insects that are attracted to the sap. The ruby-throated hummingbird commonly nests throughout Ohio in trees and shrubs in low traffic areas. Other hummingbird species, such as the rufous hummingbird, may be seen during migration.
Wild Bees: With an estimated 450 species in the state, Ohio hosts an impressive diversity of wild bees. Some species like bumble bees are social bees with a queen, workers, and drones, but most bees are solitary species that nest individually in tunnels in the ground or in broken twigs, hollow stems, or other cavities or tunnels. Bees are vegetarians, relying on flowers for nectar and pollen. Nectar is the carbohydrate source (flight fuel), while pollen provides protein, lipids, and other nutrients. Pollen is used primarily as food for juvenile bees.
Specialist Bees: About a third of all bee species are pollen specialists, meaning they rely on pollen from a narrow range of native plants as food for their juveniles. Approximately 100 species of wild bees in Ohio are thought to be pollen specialists. Nectar is a more general food, available to both specialist and generalist bees, so specialist bees may sometimes be seen visiting other plants for nectar.
Butterfly and Moth Adults: Many of Ohio’s butterfly and moth species (lepidopterans) depend on nectar as a carbohydrate source to fuel their adult activities. The nectar of some plant species also includes amino acids and lipids, both vital nutrients for butterflies and moths. Other food sources for butterflies include sap and decaying fruit. Some species of moths do not feed as adults.
Butterfly and Moth Caterpillars: Butterfly and moth larvae, known as caterpillars, are phytophagous (plant eaters). Some have a narrow range of native plants they will eat, while others feed on a wider range of plant species, sometimes including non-natives. The plant(s) chosen by the adult females to lay eggs on, and later for the caterpillars to eat, are called host plants. Caterpillars play a vital role in the ecosystem as food for birds.
Cover: Many trees and shrubs provide protective cover and potential nesting sites for birds. Certain plant species offer exceptional cover, due to branching structures, size, and other characteristics.
Azalea and rhododendron, Rhododendron spp.
Azaleas and rhododendrons are shade-tolerant shrubs that prefer moist, acidic, well-drained soil that is high in organic matter. Spring flowers attract bees, particularly bumble bees, and may be visited by hummingbirds. The leaves provide food for dozens of caterpillar species, such as the promethea silk moth (Native plant finder, n.d.). Azalea pollen is essential for one species of specialist bee (Fowler, J., & Droege, S., 2020).
- Fame azalea (R. calendulaceum)
- Rosebay rhododendron (R. maximum)
- Pink azalea (R. periclymenoides)
- Early azalea (R. prinophyllum)
|Hummingbirds, bumble bees, and other pollinators visit rhododendron flowers. Photo by Vincent Weber.||Rhododendron and azalea flowers brighten shady spaces in spring and early summer. Photo by Rhododendron maximum iNaturalist@sophronie_roi.|
Blueberry, Vaccinium spp.
Lowbush blueberry, V.angustifolium
Highbush blueberry, V. corymbosum
Blueberries are one of the top shrubs to attract a diverse array of beneficial creatures. They are excellent for songbirds, providing food, cover, and nesting sites. Their flowers are visited by an assortment of bees, including bumble bees, honey bees, and more than a dozen pollen specialist bees (Fowler, J., & Droege, S., 2020). Blueberry leaves are the larval host for about 200 species of butterflies and moths, including the red-spotted purple and the snowberry clearwing (Native plant finder, n.d.). Their leaves turn shades of red, yellow, and orange, providing excellent fall color.
Blueberry plants prefer full sun sites with acidic, well-drained soils high in organic. For specific highbush blueberry growing requirements and cultivar selections for Ohio, consult the OSU fact sheet HYG-1422, Growing Blueberries in the Home Landscape: ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/HYG-1422.
Deerberry (V. stamineum) is used by wildlife, has similar site requirements, and will naturalize to form clumps in suitable locations.
|Ripe blueberry fruit is quickly devoured by birds. Photo by T. Abe Lloyd.||Bumble bee queens visit blueberry flowers for nectar and pollen. Photo by Heather Holm.|
Bottlebrush buckeye, Aesculus parviflora
This large multistemmed shrub produces long spikes (12 inches or more) of creamy, bottlebrush-like flowers in mid- to late summer that attract native bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Plants grow to 12 feet tall and wide. Once established, the shrub suckers at the base to form a colony covered in flowers. Bottlebrush buckeye is suitable for sun or shade in moist, well-drained soils. Leaves turn yellow in fall. Because of its size at maturity, only large landscapes may have space for more than one bottlebrush buckeye.
|Bottlebrush buckeye’s long flower spikes bloom in summer, attracting many butterflies. Photo by iNaturalist@Maryleah.||Leathery buckeye husks ripen to reveal a shiny seed. Photo by iNaturalist@paulbrandwin.|
Brambles (blackberry, raspberry, dewberry and many more), Rubus spp.
Many species of Rubus are native to Ohio, including smooth blackberry (R. canadensis), red raspberry (R. idaeus subsp. idaeus), and purple-flowering raspberry (R. odoratus). Bramble flowers attract a variety of pollinators gathering pollen and nectar, including several species of bumble bees. Many songbirds and mammals eat bramble berries. These plants also provide excellent nesting cover for birds, especially blackberry and black raspberry. Tunnel-nesting bees may use old stems. More than a hundred butterfly and moth species use brambles as a host plant for caterpillars, including the Isabella tiger moth, io moth, and cecropia silk moth (Native plant finder, n.d.).
|Bramble flowers are visited by bees for nectar and pollen. Photo by iNaturalist@Charles and Kathy Appell.||Bramble fruit is ignored by birds until it ripens and changes color. Photo by G. Mason.|
Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis
Buttonbush prefers moist or even wetland soils but is adaptable to moist garden sites or along the margins of water gardens. The adaptability of this shrub is evidenced by its successful use at demonstration pollinator plantings in full sun and average soils at Ohio turnpike rest stops. Plants typically grow 6–8 feet tall and wide.
The young stems of buttonbush produce round, ball-like clusters of creamy-white flowers in late summer. Individual small flowers on the clusters are shallow, providing easy access to an assortment of pollinators, including small bees, wasps, flies, and butterflies. The occasionally used common name “honeyball” indicates the flower’s use as a nectar source for honey bees (and many other bees). Nutlets provide food for ducks and other waterfowl when grown along pond edges. Buttonbush is a larval host plant for about two dozen moths, including the Titan sphinx moth (Native plant finder, n.d.).
|Swallowtail butterfly visits buttonbush for nectar. Photo by Adobe Stock.||Buttonbush flower clusters provide easy food for short-tongued pollinators. Photo by iNaturalist@mwinbay53.|
Chokeberry, Aronia spp.
Red chokeberry, A. arbutifolia
Black chokeberry, A. melanocarpa
Chokeberries are known for their bird-attracting berries and stunning fall color. Native to moist sites, chokeberries are adaptable to drier landscapes and sites with low fertility. They can tolerate acid and neutral soils but are not recommended for alkaline soils. White flower clusters in spring give way to clusters of red fruit (red chokeberry, A. arbutifolia) or dark purple fruit (black chokeberry, A. melanocarpa). A spreading habit makes chokeberries ideal for naturalizing, thus providing good nesting habitat for birds. Chokeberries provide food for bees, birds, mammals, and about two dozen caterpillar species (Native plant finder, n.d.). Plant chokeberries in full sun for best flower and fruit production.
Bright red fruit on red chokeberry. Photo by Denise Ellsworth.
|Spring-blooming chokeberry flowers with conspicuous red anthers. Photo by iNaturalist@wirich.|
Dogwood (shrub dogwoods), Cornus spp.
Shrub dogwoods are excellent, adaptable shrubs suitable for many growing sites. They can be used in hedges, mixed plantings, or as individual specimens. Flowers and fruit provide food for birds, mammals, bees, and other pollinators. Dogwood pollen is essential for some specialist bees (Fowler, J., & Droege, S., 2020). Broken or pruned stems may be used by solitary bees as nesting sites; this stem nesting does not harm plants. The smaller fruit of red-osier and gray dogwood are very attractive to songbirds, as is the cover these shrubs provide, especially when grown in clumps. Plants attract many songbirds. Dogwoods are the larval host for about 100 moth and butterfly species, including the spring azure butterfly (Native plant finder, n.d.).
- C. amomum, silky dogwood. Suitable for wet sites. Produces blue-to-black fruit.
- C. racemosa, gray dogwood. Drought tolerant, multistemmed and suckering. Produces white fruit on red stalks.
- C. sericea, red-osier dogwood. Suitable for wet or average sites. Produces white fruit.
|Ripe dogwood fruit is a bird favorite. Photo by iNaturalist@psaunder.||A two-spotted bumble bee foraging on shrub dogwood. Photo by Heather Holm.|
Elderberry, Sambucus spp.
American elderberry, S.canadensis
Red elderberry, S. racemose
Flat-topped clusters of creamy white flowers in spring attract pollinators seeking pollen. Solitary tunnel-nesting bees use cut or broken stems. Elderberry fruit is eaten by an assortment of birds and mammals (dark purple fruit for S. canadensis, red fruit for S. racemosa). Fruit is edible when cooked, and is often used in jelly, pies, and wine. Although elderberry grows and flowers best in full sun, plants can tolerate some shade. Shrubs have a sprawling, suckering habit and mature at a height and spread of about 6 by 6 feet or more. Cover for nesting songbirds is not ideal. Elderberry leaves are used as a caterpillar host plant by more than two dozen moths, including polyphemus and cecropia moths (Native plant finder, n.d.).
|Ripe fruit is eaten by birds and mammals. Photo by Jim Danzi.||Elderberry flowers provide pollen in spring. Photo by iNaturalist@kd10451.|
Ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolius
Ninebark is tolerant of various soil types, grows well in sun or partial shade, and is adaptable to drought. Clusters of white flowers are produced in late spring and are visited by an assortment of pollinators. Shrubs provide excellent cover for nesting songbirds. About three dozen species of caterpillars use this shrub for their development, such as the Io moth and Cecropia moth (Native plant finder, n.d.). Although several cultivars with colorful leaves are available, a recent study indicates these may be less palatable for caterpillars and thus may provide less food for birds (Baisden et al., 2018).
|Io and cecropia moths use ninebark shrubs for their development. Photo by A. P. Seregin.||Ninebark’s white flower clusters are visited by an assortment of spring bees. Photo by iNaturalist@gansucha.|
Simple, five-petal rose flowers offer a pollen reward, attracting an assortment of native bees, particularly bumble bees. Shrubs provide protective and nesting cover for birds, while stems offer nesting sites for solitary bees. Birds eat the smaller hips. About 100 butterfly and moth species depend on this plant as a caterpillar food source, including the white-lined sphinx moth, io moth, and polyphemus moth (Native plant finder, n.d.).
- Smooth rose, R. blanda
- Pasture rose, R. carolina
- Swamp rose, R. palustris
- Prairie rose, R. setigera
Dog rose (R. canina) is a pink-blooming non-native rose that sometimes naturalizes in the wild. This plant is potentially invasive in Ohio and is considered invasive in West Virginia.
|Rose flowers offer only pollen as a reward to bee visitors. Photo by Heather Holm.||Birds will eat smaller rose hips. Photo by Ken Potter.|
Spicebush, Lindera benzoin
Shade-loving spicebush is commonly found in the forest understory. Spicebush is often noticed when in bloom in spring or when its fruit ripens to bright red in late summer. Clusters of small yellow flowers are visited in spring by small pollinators. Flowers give way to bright red berries along the stems of female plants which are consumed by an assortment of birds and mammals. Leaves turn golden yellow in fall.
Spicebush serves as the larval host for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, eastern tiger swallowtail, imperial moth, promethea moth, and about eight other species of moths (Native plant finder, n.d.). Leaves and stems are aromatic when crushed. Plants require moist soils that are rich in organic matter, similar to the plant’s native understory site conditions.
|Spicebush grows clusters of small, yellow flowers in the spring. Photo by Adobe Stock.||Red spicebush berries are consumed by birds and mammals. Photo by juliakmil@Naturalist.|
Sumac, Rhus spp.
Smooth sumac, R. glabra
Staghorn sumac, R. typhina
Smooth and staghorn sumac are large, suckering, tree-like plants with stout twigs. Large flower clusters are attractive to pollinators, including many short-tongued bees, wasps, and flies. Their fruits are eaten by birds and mammals but are not preferred by birds until winter. Sumacs are host plants for dozens of butterfly and moth species, including luna and cecropia moths (Native plant finder, n.d.). Pithy stems can be used as nesting sites by solitary tunnel-nesting bees.
|Hungry birds and mammals may eat sumac fruit in winter. Photo by Denise Ellsworth.||Many pollinators visit sumac flowers. Photo by John Boback.|
Viburnum, Viburnum spp.
Adaptable to many sites in full sun to part shade, viburnum shrubs add landscape interest with creamy white flowers and colorful fruit favored by birds, especially arrowwood and blackhaw viburnum. Many viburnum species provide pollen and nectar for pollinators as well as cover for birds. Viburnum is used by numerous moth and butterfly species as larval host foods, such as the spring azure, hummingbird clearwing, and snowberry clearwing (Native plant finder, n.d.). Many native viburnum species grow well in Ohio landscapes:
- American cranberrybush (V. opulus var. americanum)
Lacecap flowers with drooping clusters of red fruit in fall.
- Blackhaw (V. prunifolium)
An upright, multistemmed shrub that also can be grown as a small tree with a single trunk. Blue-black fruit is attractive to birds and mammals and is edible to people either raw or cooked. Attractive purple to red fall color.
- Mapleleaf viburnum (V. acerifolium)
A rounded, suckering, shade-tolerant shrub with blue-black fruit and good fall color.
- Nannyberry (V. lentago)
Large, upright, multistemmed, suckering shrubs with creamy flower clusters maturing to larger, blue-black fruit. Available cultivars offer an assortment of form, flowering, and fruit characteristics.
- Smooth witherod (V. nudum var. cassinoides)
Attractive, flat-topped clusters of creamy, white flowers in spring, followed by pink and blue fruit. Attractive maroon to red fall color.
- Southern arrowwood (V. dentatum)
Upright, rounded, multistemmed shrubs with blue-black fruit, good fall color, and cover for birds. Birds prefer their smaller berries.
|Viburnum flowers provide pollen and nectar in spring. Photo by Carol Kinsey.||Many birds and mammals seek out viburnum fruit. Photo by iNaturalist@amber0326.|
Willow (shrub willows), Salix spp.
Early spring, willow flowers provide needed pollen and nectar for early bees, such as solitary mining bees and queen bumble bees. Willow pollen is essential for about a dozen species of specialist bees (Fowler, J., & Droege, S., 2020). Willows are dioecious with separate male and female plants. Both male and female plants offer a nectar reward to pollinators. The male plants also offer copious pollen. Willows are host to roughly 300 species of caterpillars, including viceroy and mourning cloak butterflies (Native plant finder, n.d.). Dense plantings can provide cover for birds.
While pussy willow is the most commonly grown shrub willow in landscapes, many other shrub willows are native to Ohio. Most are tolerant of moist-to-wet soils and occasional flooding. Trial gardens and demonstration plots are needed to sort out the garden-worthiness of other willow species. Species to consider for landscape planting include:
- Pussy willow (S. discolor)
Fuzzy winter buds open to flowers in very early spring. This tall, multistemmed shrub can provide cover for birds. Plants grow best in sites with full sun and moist soils.
- Sandbar willow (S. interior)
Plants can spread to form colonies, making it suitable for soil- and bank-stabilization projects.
- Bayberry willow (S. myricoides)
This low-growing shrub can be used as a ground cover.
- Silky willow (S. sericea)
A large shrub or small tree, silky willow can provide cover for wildlife and is useful for soil stabilization projects.
|Queen bumble bees and other early spring bees visit willow catkins for pollen and nectar. Photo by Heather Holm.||Pussy willow flowers emerge from dark bud scales in late winter. Photo by Sun Snyder.|
Winterberry holly, Ilex verticillata
This deciduous holly has bright red berries that persist through winter until birds consume them. Spring flowers attract bees and other pollinators gathering pollen and nectar. Ilex pollen is essential for some specialist bees (Fowler, J., & Droege, S., 2020). Winterberry leaves provide a larval food source for about 40 moth species, including the io moth and polyphemus moth (Native plant finder, n.d.). When grown in clusters, winterberry shrubs provide cover for birds, even in winter.
Like other hollies, winterberries are dioecious with separate male and female plants. One male plant is usually sufficient to provide pollen to enable multiple female plants to set fruit. Winterberries grow best in moist, acid, soil conditions. While plants will tolerate full sun to partial shade, fruit set is best in full sun sites. At maturity, shrubs may be 8 feet tall and wide, but smaller selections are available for smaller landscapes.
|Bright red fruit persists into winter until hungry birds strip plants clean. Photo by Denise Ellsworth.||Winterberry flowers are attractive to bees, providing rewards of nectar and pollen. Photo by Jack Schaefer.|
Don’t Let Good Intentions Go Bad!
Every year in the United States, roughly one1 billion birds die after hitting windows, and nearly half of those are collisions with home windows. Homeowners are rarely aware of these collisions as injured birds may fly away to die elsewhere, or be eaten by a predator (cat, raccoon, fox, or dog) before being found. Attracting songbirds into a landscape also should include making windows bird-safe. Focus on windows that reflect plants, are near bird feeders or baths, or where collisions already have occurred. Bird-tape, decals, and paint can be applied to windows to repel birds in a way that causes little to no light and visual disruption to humans. More information can be found at the American Bird Conservancy’s website - abcbirds.org/glass-collisions/.
Check out the following resources for more information on how shrubs and trees can be incorporated into a home landscape to attract pollinators:
- Darke, R., & Tallamy, D. W. (2014). The living landscape: designing for beauty and biodiversity in the home garden. Timber Press.
- Dirr, M. A. (1990). Manual of woody landscape plants: their identification, ornamental characteristics, culture, propagation and uses. Stipes Pub Llc.
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. (n.d.). Find Plants. The University of Texas at Austin.
Retrieved May 3, 2023 from wildflower.org/plants/
- Fowler, J. (2020). Host plants for pollen specialist bees of the Eastern United States. Jarrodfowler.com.
Retrieved February 21, 2023 from jarrodfowler.com/host_plants.html
- Tallamy, D. & Fowler. J. (n.d.) Keystone Native Plants, Eastern Temperate Forests - Ecoregion 8. National Wildlife Federation.
Retrieved May 3, 2023 from
- Natural Resources Conservation Service. (2020). Plants Database. United States Department of Agriculture.
Baisden, E. C., Tallamy, D. W., Narango, D. L., & Boyle, E. (2018). Do cultivars of native plants support insect herbivores? Hort Technology, 28(5), 596–606.
Fowler, J., & Droege, S. (2020). Pollen specialist bees of the Eastern United States. Jarrodfowler.com.
Native Plant Finder. (n.d.). Bring your garden to life. National Wildlife Federation.
Retrieved May 3, 2023, from nwf.org/nativeplantfinder/
Want to learn how to use native trees to create living landscapes? Check out Native Trees: Creating Living Landscapes for Birds, Butterflies, Bees, and Other Beneficials.