Ask the Master Gardener: Look to larval-hosting shrubs to attract birds

Caterpillars are important for birds because they are high in protein and are easy to see, catch, and digest.

Contributed / Metro Newspaper Service

Dear Master Gardener: We would like to attract more birds to our yard and would like to plant a few large, native shrubs that are bird-friendly. What do you recommend?

Answer: Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) is a wonderful native plant. It’s not only a gorgeous large shrub/small tree, but of great value to birds. The pagoda dogwood is a larval host plant to 95 caterpillar species and a nesting site for birds. Ninety-eight birds are attracted to it, including cardinals, chickadees, and orioles, just to name a few. Pagoda dogwood can be grown in part sun to part shade. It has a unique, horizontal branching pattern and its mature height reaches 15-20 feet. Pagoda dogwoods have multi-seasonal interest, flowering from May to June, bearing dark blue berries in July and August (which birds love), sporting yellow and burgundy-red foliage in the fall, and catching snow in the winter with their distinct tiered branching.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier) is another native large shrub or small, single or multi-stemmed tree. It reaches a mature height of 15-40 feet, depending on the cultivar. It grows in full sun to part shade in medium to dry soil. It also provides multi-seasonal interest with clusters of white flowers in late April or May, edible purple berries in June or July, and orange, red, and yellow fall foliage. It’s the larval host plant to 94 caterpillar species and 42 species of birds are attracted to it. Not only do birds enjoy the ripe fruit, but so do humans. The ripe fruit can be eaten fresh or used in jams, jellies, and pies.

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Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) is a large, upright, multi-stemmed, suckering shrub, which typically grows to 10-12 feet in height with a spread of 6-12 feet. It can also be grown as a small, single trunk tree, which may reach a height of 30 feet. If you want to control the spread of the shrub, remove the root suckers. If you want it to naturalize, let the shrub sucker and spread. Plant it in full to part sun. Its white flowers appear in spring, then the flowers give way in September to dark blue berries, which often persist into winter and are very attractive to birds. The fruits are edible and can be eaten off the bush when ripe or used in jams and jellies. Nannyberry is the larval host plant for 84 caterpillar species and attracts many birds.


Why are caterpillars so important for birds? They are high in protein and are easy to see, catch, and digest. For most birds, an insect diet is critical, especially during breeding season. How many caterpillars do chickadees need to rear one clutch of nestlings? According to Wild Ones Minnesota, “... depending on the clutch size, 6,000-9,000!”

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Dear Master Gardener: Seed catalogues have been arriving at my door, what things should I consider before ordering seeds for my garden?

Answer: Seed shopping by mail can certainly liven up a dreary winter’s day. Remember the photographs and artwork you see in catalogs are as good as it gets, they are grown under ideal conditions by professionals. In the garden of your mind, the seeds you plant will look just as good. But in reality, your true garden may have poor soil, pests, diseases and possibly shade. Take these issues into consideration and order seeds and plants that are appropriate for your growing conditions.

  • Find reliable catalog companies: There are plenty of companies out there and seed quality can vary from one company to the next. In addition, freshness matters. Companies that offer bargain basement prices may be able to do so only because of inferior quality or stale seeds.

  • Consider making your first order small: If you are unsure as to a company’s reputation, start with a small order, you can always buy more later but don’t bet your entire garden’s success on an unknown company to supply the seeds.

  • Plan ahead. In order to avoid the mistake of biting off more than you can chew, do a little advance planning. First, try to calculate how many plants you can realistically add to a given space.

  • Determine your seed sowing and transplant schedule. Consider the length of your growing season and how many successions of crops you are able to grow in a season.

  • Consider how much time you have to devote to planting and maintenance. Even if you have unlimited room, there’s still work to do in planting the seeds and subsequent care. Gardening should not be a burden or chore. Keep it manageable to fit your schedule and lifestyle.

  • Weigh the amount of variety you would like versus the price of the seed packet.

  • Realize the number of days to maturity quoted in the catalogue is just an estimate.

  • Watch out for seeds treated with synthetic chemical fungicide. When ordering, specify untreated seeds.

  • Choose cultivars that have qualities that are important to you such as plant size, habit and tolerance of your soil and light conditions.

  • Consider growing one or two varieties each year that you have never grown before.

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Dear Master Gardener: What is causing the leaves on my rubber tree plant to curl? I have it in my foyer near the front door. Could the cold drafts when the door opens cause it?

Answer: There are several possible causes for the leaves on a rubber tree plant to curl. Over or under watering can cause leaf curl on rubber plants. Water the plant thoroughly, then allow the soil to dry slightly between waterings. Typically, less water is needed during the winter. Low humidity is another possible cause. A humidity tray can raise the moisture level around the plant. Another possible cause of leaf curl is insects such as aphids, spider mites, or scale. Inspect the plant carefully, especially the undersides of the leaves. Most insect pests can be controlled by spraying with insecticidal soap. Rubber tree plants can be temperamental and have leaf curl when there is a sudden temperature change, sudden move to another spot, or sudden cold drafts from a door or window. Because rubber plants are sensitive to temperature fluctuations, you may want to move your plant to an area that is more protected. Unfortunately moving it can also cause the leaves to curl and some to drop off, but it should recover. Rubber plants prefer bright, indirect light.

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You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A master gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at and I will answer you in the column if space allows.
University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.
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