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Waxwing eating a rowan berry
© Vladimir SmirnovTASS via Getty Images

Plants for birds: Top plants to feed the birds

Published: August 18, 2022 at 12:11 pm

Discover 12 top plants for your garden to attract and provide food for birds and other wildlife, including choices from writer Isabel Osada.

It’s as important as ever to kit out your garden for wildlife, especially birds. Fortunately, there are so many products on the market to support them, from bird baths and feeders to bird houses. Another way of supporting birds in the garden is through the planting, as not all garden birds will be happy eating the basic seed mixes that we put out on our bird tables.

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Many trees and shrubs produce berries that are a vital food source for birds over the winter months, and they also keep the garden looking bright and exciting when things can get a little grey. It is also a good idea to plant some herbaceous and annual plants that provide seeds for birds earlier in the year too. Here we recommend some of the best plants to feed the birds, and hear from writer Isabel Osada about her recommendations.

What makes a plant good for birds?

There are many characteristics that make plants attractive to birds. It is important to provide not only a food source but also protection and nesting sites. Although it’s great to install artificial forms of shelter, garden birds will also benefit from planting that provides them with places to rest and perch. Plants that form berries or seeds that offer up a food source through winter are perfect for attracting birds to the garden. If you include all of these, then you’ll ensure a regular stream of winged visitors.

The best plants for birds

Rosa canina

Rosa canina - dog rose

Rosa canina, also known as the dog rose, can often be seen growing in hedgerows throughout the British countryside. Not only are the flowers great for supporting bees and butterflies, the rose hips that follow in autumn are a useful food source for birds. Ripening between September and October, the bright orange fruits are particularly attractive to blackbirds, redwings and waxwings. Rosa canina has attractive pale pink flowers that appear in summer and used curved spines to scramble up other shrubs and trees.

Dipsacus fullonum (Teasel)

Teasel - Dispascus Fullonum
© Jason Ingram

Dipsacus fullonum, or common teasel, is a biennial plant found all over the UK. The stems grow up to three metres and bare bristly flowerheads covered in tiny blue flowers in summer. The flowers are popular with pollinators. When they go to seed in autumn, the stems retain their rigidity and can give structure and form to garden beds. They are also one of the best plants for birds as the seeds attract goldfinches. Lasting through the winter, these seedheads can provide a food source for many weeks and help you to attract a wider range of birds to your garden.

Sunflowers

Helianthus Bicentenary
© Jason Ingram

These sunshine-loving annuals are already very popular among gardeners as they’re easy to grow and add height and colour to beds and borders. Also loved by bees and butterflies in the summer while they’re flowering, their benefits to wildlife cannot be overstated. The seeds of sunflowers are high in fat making them one of the best plants for birds. Throughout autumn, the seeds will attract a range of birds including finches, long-tailed tits and nuthatches.

Next up, we have recommendations of plants for birds from Isabel Osada.

Berberis vulgaris (Barberry)

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.

Cotoneaster frigidus (Cotoneaster)

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?

Crataegus monogyna (Hawthorn)

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.

Hedera helix (Ivy)

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, making it an all around great plant for birds.

Ilex aquifolium (Common holly)

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. It is important to remember, that if you want your holly to produce berries, then you need a female plant in your garden and also a male plant in your garden or nearby.

Lonicera (Honeysuckle)

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 coccinea (Pyracantha)

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.

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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.’

Sambucus racemosa (Red-berried elder)

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 making it a great plant for birds.

Sorbus aria (Whitebeam)

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.

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.

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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

Authors

Molly Blair
Molly Blaireditorial and digital assistant

Molly is the Gardens Illustrated's editorial and digital assistant. She has a roof garden and has her RHS level 2.

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