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Introduction to Habitat Gardening

Introduction to Habitat Gardening
by Glenn Olsen

Gardening for birds and butterflies is growing increasingly popular with urban and sub-urban homeowners, especially during our stay at home period. This style of gardening utilizes plants (especially native plants) that benefit birds and butterflies. Additionally, we want to build structure in our yard, that is, plant in a way to create habitat, places where birds or butterflies feel safe, find food, rest, build a nest or seek shelter. This structure is similar to the way plants grow in nature.

In addition to the beauty and joy of having birds and butterflies in your garden, it can be-come a retreat in which you can relax, enjoy and contemplate in your own nature oasis. Our winter months are a great time to get organized for a spring garden or landscape project. This is the time to plan which plants you want and where you want them in your yard. Also, if any flower bed preparation or pathways need to be created, winter is a good time to get that done.

The Upper Texas Coast is part of the migration route that many of our songbirds use as they migrate to and from Mexico, Central and South America each spring and late sum-mer. We can attract many of these weary migrants to our gardens by adding plants that provide food and shelter and create stopover habitat during their travels. Some of the beautiful birds that you may attract during spring migration are Summer Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and Warblers, the jewels of our birds.

Here are a few of the more commonly available native plants that provide food and shel-ter for many of the birds that migrate through or spend the winter on the Upper Texas Coast. Each of those listed grows well in our area. Additionally many of them are valu-able and important to our native, beneficial pollinators and butterflies. This is only touch-ing on the plants available, there are many others. Be sure to purchase the plants based on the botanical (scientific name) because there are similar non-native plants that grow much larger and/or do not provide the food like the native plant.

Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) and Possum-haw or Deciduous holly (Ilex decidua)
Two medium sized shrubs that grow well and are attractive in a landscape that produce bright orange to red berries that many birds feed on. In the spring they have many small white flowers that attract numerous beneficial insects.

American Holly or Christmas Holly (Ilex opaca var. opaca)
This classic American evergreen tree is under utilized in the landscape. The attractive red berries are produced on the female plant, so make sure yours has the berries when you buy it. The berries are important food for many species of birds during the winter and it also provides important shelter from the cold. American Holly is a very stately and attractive tree that would add character and beauty to any landscape.

Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum)
This attractive plant with its shiny, dark green leaves is usually an under story shrub of up to 12 feet but if planted in full sun may grow to about 30 feet. In the spring it produces large clusters of small beau-tiful white flowers. In the fall, the bluish black fruit is consumed by many species of birds. Another good shrub that provides shelter for birds in inclement weather. This plant will add year round color to you landscape.

Arrowwood Viburnum or Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)
This is an excellent under story shrub that grows 4 to 10 feet tall. It has a nice open and airy appearance, which provides an attractive visual aspect. The bluish-black fruit ripens from August to November and provides much need food for fall and winter migrants

Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus arboreous var. drummondii)
This beautiful shrub grows in the eastern half of Texas as well as in other states along the gulf and south into Mexico. This hardy shrub grows in all light conditions from heavy shade to full sun. However, shade to filtered sun are the preferred light conditions. It grows in many soil conditions from the salty sand along the coast, the heavy gumbo of Houston, and the dry, rocky soils of central Texas. It is drought tolerant too! In heavy shade this plant grows low to the ground and in sun grows up to four feet tall but needs more water. However, the height it is easily managed by trimming back during the winter. Turk’s cap is at the height of its bloom period during the fall migration of the Ruby-throated hummingbird. The bright red flower resembles a rose bud (or turk’s cap). But like other members of the hibiscus family, the stigma extends above the flower petals. Make sure you purchase the native (Malvaviscus arboreous var. drummondii) and not any other. The other species will grow to ten feet tall and is reportedly less frequented by the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Blue Mist Flower (Conoclinium colesetinum)
The gorgeous pale blue flowers of this medium sized leafy perennial is a magical nectar source for many species of butterflies. The ageratum like blossoms grow at the tips of the stems and are so abundant they cover the entire top of the plant. Hummingbirds and pol-linators also make good use of these flowers. Easily grown in light shade to full sun in various soil conditions. Growing from about 16 inches to 26 inches tall ( but can grow taller) these hearty misflowers are an attractive addition to any landscape.

The plants mentioned are only a few that contribute to a colorful, attractive garden or landscape and help create habitat for birds and butterflies whose presence softens the urban environment and creates a more enjoyable and interesting yard.

For information on additional plants and for an introduction to birds, visit

To purchase plants from Houston Audubon's Natives Nursery at Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, visit

For additional information go to and click on suggested plants.

If you are seeking the advice for landscaping for birds or the installation, I would be happy to talk with you. Contact me at 

Glenn Olsen
Past President: Native Plant Society of Texas
Owner: GO Native Landscaping for Birds and Butterflies


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