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Going Wild in the Garden 

Interested in attracting more birds, bees, and butterflies to your garden? Pete Haggard, a local expert on insects and co-author, with his wife Judy, of Insects of the Pacific Northwest, has compiled a list of the best local native plants for wildlife. Here are his top 10 picks.

Red Alder

This fast-growing, deciduous tree commonly grows 45-50 feet tall (sometimes 80-100 feet) and 20-30 feet wide. It provides food and homes for cavity-nesting birds such as woodpeckers, sapsuckers and owls. In spring, red alders support throngs of northbound warblers. It is also a larval host plant for the western tiger swallowtail butterfly. This tree is happy in wet or moist soils and likes full sun but will tolerate light shade. It has attractive white/light gray bark. As an added bonus, red alder fixes nitrogen in the soil, leaving a fertile legacy for future generations of plants.


Our native willows are deciduous trees that provide many of the wildlife benefits of red alder but are usually somewhat smaller — around 25-40 feet. Some willows are shrubby, with several trunks; others are more tree-like, with a single trunk. The flowers provide pollen and nectar for bees in early spring, and willows are perhaps the most important local food source for migrating spring warblers. Famished from their nightly migration, mixed flocks settle into budding willow branches at dawn and feed voraciously during the day. These trees are sun lovers and like moist situations. (Note: Weeping willow is not a native species.)


California is home to 56 species of manzanita, handsome plants with evergreen, leathery leaves, small, white or pink urn-shaped flowers and smooth, reddish bark. Some are large shrubs, while others are creeping ground covers. Manzanitas are one of the first plants to flower in late winter and are thus very important to native bees and hummingbirds. Breeding spotted towhees often select well-established manzanita patches as nesting sites. The small red fruits are also attractive to birds. Manzanitas grow in sun or light shade and require excellent drainage. They tolerate poor soil and, in fact, prefer rocky or sandy, acid soils rather than rich, heavy soils.


Ceanothus, or California lilac, is another large genus of plants, with 43 species native to California, ranging from low-growing ground covers to upright, bushy shrubs. They are prolific bloomers with sweetly-scented flowers in shades of blue or sometimes white. The pollen and nectar are relished by bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. Ceanothus is the primary larval host plant for pale swallowtail butterflies. Dense thickets of blue blossom ceanothus in the King Range provide habitat for the California thrasher. Most species of ceanothus are evergreen. These plants require full sun and excellent drainage, and many demand dry soil in summer. The smaller-leaved species are generally more deer resistant.


Twinberry is a deciduous shrub that can grow to 10 feet tall with small, tubular yellow flowers and conspicuous red or purple bracts. It is another early bloomer and will flower throughout the summer, if kept watered. The flowers provide nectar for hummingbirds and western swallowtail butterflies, and the black twin berries are relished by fruit-eating birds such as tanagers, waxwings and robins. The long-lasting fruits provide important winter nourishment for these birds as well as hermit and varied thrushes. Twinberry likes moist conditions and will grow in sun or partial shade.

Pacific Wax Myrtle

Pacific wax myrtle is a large, fast-growing, evergreen shrub that can reach 10-30 feet in height and width. It can be sheared to make a neat hedge or privacy barrier. The flowers are inconspicuous, but they ripen into small (one-quarter inch) round nutlets that are an important winter food for yellow-rumped warblers, enabling them to winter farther north than other warblers. It prefers sun or light shade and moderate water and is another native shrub that fixes nitrogen in the soil.

Currant & Gooseberry

Currants and gooseberries are in the same genus, but can be distinguished because currant stems are smooth while gooseberry stems are spiny. They are deciduous shrubs ranging from 3 feet to 12 feet high. They have interesting, colorful flowers, usually rather small, though red-flowering currant has large, dangling clusters of pink, red or white flowers that make it one of our showiest native shrubs. The flowers and fruit attract bees and birds and several species of butterfly larvae feed on the leaves. Currants and gooseberries appreciate sun or part shade and moderate to regular water. Red-flowering currant is fairly drought-tolerant.


Asters generally flower from midsummer to fall, providing nectar and pollen for bees and nectar for adult butterflies when other flowers are becoming scarce. Locally, the most common native aster is California or Pacific aster, with flowers in shades of lavender blue. You can see it blooming along roadsides in late summer. It is fairly low-growing in the wild, but can reach 3 feet tall in gardens, where it can be aggressive if pampered. California aster leaves are the primary larval food for the field crescent butterfly.


Clarkias produce large numbers of colorful, showy flowers — usually in shades of pink, rose, and crimson — during the time when many native bees are active. They prefer sun and moderate water and, depending on the species, grow up to 3 feet tall. Clarkias are annual plants best grown from seed and will often self-sow in the garden.

Wild Buckwheat

Buckwheat flowers are attractive to native bees and butterflies, and birds enjoy the seeds. Local buckwheat species most likely to be offered for sale here are beach buckwheat and naked buckwheat. Beach buckwheat, with furry silvery leaves and soft pink flowerheads, grows in abundance on local sand dunes, reaching 1 to 2 feet in height. Naked or barestem buckwheat grows up to 4 feet tall with generally leafless stems and pom-poms of white, pink or yellow flowers. It is very common in dry, open areas. Buckwheats grow best in full sun and well-drained, loose, gravelly soil and are considered drought-tolerant.

Thanks to Pete Haggard and Jude Power for contributing information for this column.

Donna Wildearth is the owner of Garden Visions Landscape Design in Eureka. Visit her website at

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