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Waxwing eating a rowan berry
© Vladimir SmirnovTASS via Getty Images

Plants for birds: Top plants to feed the birds

Discover 10 top trees and shrubs to plant in your garden to attract and provide food for birds and other wildlife. Writer Isabel Osada picks out the best plants for birds

If you're looking to attract birds in the garden, we've rounded up a list of the top plants for birds. Using these trees and shrubs in the garden will create a natural feeding centre for birds at the very time of the year when their food is the most scarce.


The best plants for birds


Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)

Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)
© Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images

If you plant barberry (Berberis vulgaris), which is a deciduous shrub with amazing bright-red berries, then in winter you will have food for many birds including thrushes, fieldfares and redwings.

Buy Berberis vulgaris from the Agroforestry Research Trust


Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster frigidus)

Cotoneaster, frigidus
© MyLoupe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Put cotoneaster (Cotoneaster frigidus) in your garden somewhere and its flowers will attract bees. It is used as a larval food plant for five different types of moth (and moths, of course, feed bats) and the bright-red winter berries are food for thrushes and waxwings. You could even make a hedge from this wonderful plant. Why put up a fence when you could have a cotoneaster hedge?

Buy Cotoneaster frigidus from Plants to Plant


Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

Crataegus monogyna or common hawthorn
© Andrea Innocenti/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is one of the favourites of Proust. For Marcel the sight of a hawthorn in flower in May was so unbearably beautiful that he was sometimes forced to look away. Hawthorn also has an amazing perfume which Proust describes as having the ‘bitter-sweet fragrance of almonds’. Hawthorn grows slowly in glorious white bushes and can also grow up into trees with wonderful gnarled trunks.

As well as having all these wonders, the red berries in winter provide food for starlings, finches, crows, blue tits, thrushes and waxwings. A perfect plant for birds.

And it’s cheap too. I bought four small hawthorn plants yesterday for £6.95. I hope you’re as excited as I am. I mean really – for joyfully looking after the planet by planting hawthorn may be something small, but if you’re a hungry thrush in the snow it could be life or death.

Buy Cratageus monogyna from Hedges Direct


Ivy (Hedera helix)

Climbing ivy
© Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

There are many different kinds of ivy. Hedera helix is the name for the common variety that many gardeners pull down because it can be difficult to eradicate and it crowds out other plants where it is established. However, it has black berries in autumn and winter that are food for wood pigeons, collared doves, waxwings, thrushes, jays, starlings and finches.


Common holly (Ilex aquifolium)

Holly, Ilex aquifolium
© FlowerPhotos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Mistle thrushes love holly berries and you can save money at Christmas by just bringing a branch or two into the house.


Honeysuckle (Lonicera)

Honeysuckle, Lonicera
© FlowerPhotos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Honeysuckle (Lonicera) seems to have all sorts of benefits for a garden. There are many different types and they are all glorious with highly perfumed flowers. They are easy to grow, pretty much indestructible, and not prone to pests or diseases.

If anything, the only problem with them is that you have to keep an eye on them and cut them back occasionally. Otherwise if you turn your back they will have doubled in size.

Of the many different types, Lonicera periclymenum has red autumn berries that are food for (how’s this for a list?) robins, blackbirds, song thrushes, garden warblers, tits, crows, finches and waxwings.


Pyracantha (Pyracantha coccinea)

Pyracantha coccinea
© Andrea Innocenti/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

If you live in an area where you have security concerns to the point where you or someone else has had to put up barbed wire to keep out intruders, you could consider getting rid of it and planting pyracantha. This plant has thorns that are so lethal that the old gardeners where I currently live (my garden is communal) refused to cut it back or go anywhere near it, as they said that they were not insured. If someone were to fall on this plant it would do just as much or more damage than it would if someone fell onto barbed wire.

In many ways it’s not what you’d call a ‘nice’ plant. But it produces abundant vivid-orange fruit in autumn and winter and the wood pigeons and thrushes just love it. I often watch the wood pigeons eating the berries and wonder how it is that they don’t spear themselves on the thorns. But they never do.

This plant should be so well known that any self-respecting burglar would take one look at it and say, ‘Forget it – they have pyracantha.’


Red-berried elder (Sambucus racemosa)

Sambucus Racemosa
© Paroli Galperti/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Also known as red elderberry, this plant is good if your ground is very wet because it thrives in those conditions. The stems, roots and leaves are poisonous for humans but butterflies love the flowers while waxwings and thrushes eat the autumn fruits.

Buy red-berried elder from Forestart


Whitebeam (Sorbus aria)

Sorbus Aria
© Paroli Galperti/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Whitebeam (Sorbus aria) is native to southern England, so if you live in southern England this is a good choice as we’re all supposed to be planting native plants. According to the Woodland Trust, it’s also widely planted in the north of England.

In the north-west they call the berries ‘chess apples’ and humans can eat them when they are nearly rotten. The flowers are food for pollinators, the leaves home to at least four species of moth, and the scarlet berries, which ripen in late summer and early autumn, are food for wood pigeons, fieldfares, redwings, blackbirds and mistle thrushes.


Rowan tree

Waxwing eating a rowan berry
© Vladimir SmirnovTASS via Getty Images

And finally – if you live at high altitude or up a mountain, there’s the beloved rowan (Sorbus family). It’s native in the highlands of Scotland but is so much loved that it’s also planted just because it’s beautiful. The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of moths and the caterpillars of the apple fruit moth feed on the berries.

The blossoms produce food for the pollinators and the berries feed blackbirds, mistle thrushes, redstarts, redwings, song thrushes, fieldfare and waxwing. Rowan is also good for keeping out witches and evil spirits, which, you never know, is a quality that you may welcome.

By putting together the above list, I’m obviously not saying that there is anything wrong with having a bird feeder in your garden or on your window ledge – of course not. I just wanted to offer this as a more long-term option for plants in your garden. And, of course, planting trees for birds, or anyone, also helps the environment.


This is an extract from The Joyful Environmentalist by Isabel Losada, which is out now priced £12.99. Buy it here from Waterstones

Isabel Losada, The Joyful Environmentalist

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