Tuesday, January 31 2017 3:12

Ever-Important Evergreens

Written by Kirsten Werner, Natural Lands Trust

Consider planting native evergreen trees and shrubs in your yard this year.

It’s often hard to think of the cold, biting winds and drifts of deep snow during the balmy gardening season. So make a note now in your spring calendar to add a few evergreens to your yard to enjoy next winter.

Beyond adding beauty to the winter landscape, native evergreen plants are an essential part of backyard biodiversity, providing essential food and shelter for wildlife.

Your Yard as Wildlife Preserve

“You’ve probably never thought of your property as a wildlife preserve representing the last chance we have to sustain plants and animals once common throughout the U.S. But that’s exactly the role our suburban and urban landscapes are now playing,” Dr. Doug Tallamy noted in a 2009 edition of American Forests magazine. Tallamy is an acclaimed author, ecologist, educator and member of Natural Lands Trust’s Board of Trustees.

The U.S. population is expected to grow by 100 million people in the next five decades. Chester County is growing even faster—faster than any other county in our region. With this increase in residents comes development, turning once-wooded areas into ecologically barren yards of chemically treated lawns and ornamental—and often non-native—trees. In doing so, we’ve virtually eliminated the habitat needed for wildlife to survive.

Of all the plants and animals native to Pennsylvania, one in ten is imperiled, 156 have been lost entirely, and 351 are threatened or endangered. Why should we care about this sharp decline in biodiversity? Frankly, we can’t afford not to.

“The ecosystems that support us are run by biodiversity,” said Dr. Tallamy. “It’s biodiversity that generates oxygen and cleans water, creates topsoil out of rock, buffers extreme weather events like droughts and floods, pollinates our crops, and recycles the mountains of garbage we create every day.”

The good news is that the solution is actually quite simple: plant native species in our yards. Dr. Tallamy advocates a goal of tripling the number of native trees and shrubs in suburban landscapes.

Certainly not all of these need to be—or should be—evergreen species! But evergreens do play an important role in suburban wildlife gardens. Check out these Natural Lands Trust staff favorites.

Evergreen Trees

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus viginiana). One of the best trees you can plant for wildlife habitat, this native tree sports blue berries through the winter that are consumed by songbirds like the cedar waxwing. Tolerant of a wide variety of soil conditions, this plant does require full sun. Eastern red cedars generally grow 30 to 40 feet high.

Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus). Preferring well-drained slightly acidic soil, this fast-growing pine can quickly reach 100 feet tall! Its seeds are favored by chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels and birds, including black-capped chickadees, pine warblers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and white-breasted nuthatches, to name a few. White pines provide nesting sites for many songbirds and raptors (hawks, owls and eagles).

Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea). This exceptionally hardy evergreen maintains its attractive, pyramid shape as it grows, reaching about 25 feet at maturity. The seeds and buds are food for grouse, squirrels, mice and voles. Their dense growth offers winter shelter for white-tailed deer, songbirds and small mammals.

American Holly (Ilex opaca). The state tree of Delaware, American holly is best known for its shiny green foliage and red berries that persist through winter. These berries are eaten by grouse, quail, wild turkeys and many songbirds. Its inconspicuous spring flowers are attractive to bees. Be sure to plant a male specimen nearby to ensure berry production.

Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). This native magnolia, which grows up to 20 feet tall, tolerates a wide variety of soil and sun conditions, and even tolerates wet areas. The fruit is eaten by squirrels and mice, as well as a variety of songbirds including vireos, towhees, northern flickers and blue jays. Its glossy, dark green leaves generally remain intact throughout winter, especially if planted in a somewhat sheltered location.

Evergreen Shrubs

Don’t have room for new trees in your yard? No problem. Here are some native evergreen shrubs to add year-round color and biodiversity to your property.

Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia). Mountain laurel is the state shrub of Pennsylvania and thrives here. Celebrated for its showy spring flowers, this species also provides winter shelter for small birds. Mountain laurel prefers partial shade and acidic soil.

Rosebay Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum). Growing to 30 feet tall, this native evergreen rhododendron sports large pink flowers in mid-summer and supports a wide array of wildlife. Think of the cool, moist ravines you would naturally find this growing when you choose a home for this particular plant. Don’t plant it in hot, dry locations.

Inkberry (Ilex glabra). Inkberry is a great choice for an easy-care, evergreen shrub that requires no pruning. A member of the holly family, it produces small black fruits in the fall (as long as a male specimen is nearby) that are eaten by a myriad of birds as well as raccoons, coyotes and opossums.

Next winter, feel happy about your contribution to biodiversity as you survey your private nature preserve. 

Natural Lands Trust is dedicated to protecting the forests, fields, streams and wetlands that are essential to the sustainability of life in eastern PA and southern NJ. Since its founding in 1953, it has preserved more than 100,000 acres, including 43 nature preserves totaling more than 22,000 acres. Today, some 2.5 million people live within five miles of land under the organization’s protection. Visit Natlands.org.