A few weeks ago, as I dumped the last of my birdseed into the feeder, I watched a mockingbird dart in and out of my fruit trees. My first thought was that he was going to eat my olives – oh no! I hung up the feeder and moved back in hopes of seeing more birds. I saw them… in the fruit trees. They only briefly visited the feeder, if at all.
Birds don’t naturally eat from metal and glass tubes hanging from ornamental hooks. They really prefer to forage for insects, nuts, seeds and fruit. In fact, bird feeders can contribute to the spread of disease if not washed and dried regularly. You purchase bird seed usually in plastic bags which uses plastic and gasoline, and you have to refill the seed and restock your supply, using those resources over and over again. It simply isn’t sustainable and can actually transmit disease if you aren’t cleaning your feeders regularly.
Plant It Once
There is an alternative. You could attract birds to your yard with commonly available Florida native landscaping plants. Many fruit eating birds will hop from limb to limb and insectivores will chase small insects. Your yard will become a habitat and haven for songbirds to build nests, eat, and cavort rather than simply pass through for a quick nibble. They are usually easier to grow than non-native plants so you’ll have the added bonus of less maintenance, too. For details on growing and planting, consider our virtual class, Edible Florida Native Plants.
For a striking understory shrub that likes shade to part sun, try American Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana. It blooms delicate pink flowers followed by clusters of berries that line the stems that ripen to a brilliant purple. Mockingbirds, catbirds, vireos, and woodpeckers will line up to get these tasty berries, but often not until they’re dried up like tiny raisins when the sugar content increases. If they happen to leave any, you can make jelly or wine with the ripe berries. Crushing their leaves and rubbing on your skin can be an effective insect repellent.
The nutmeg-like scent of this small tree’s leaves may be enough to entice you to plant one, but the fragrant blooms and ripe red fruit will close the deal. The Simpson’s Stopper, Myricanthes frangrans, also know as Twinberry, will attract catbirds, cardinals, and mockingbirds, along with tons of pollinators. The pulp from the ripe fruit is edible, not the seed. In my opinion, the blooms smell similar to lilacs but you’ll have to get up close. You’ll have to let us know what you think they smell like in the comments.
If you are looking for a low-maintenance plant that can thrive in full sun and sandy soil, you may want to check out Yaupon Holly, Ilex vomitoria. This plant is dioeciuos, meaning that there are separate male and female plants. Only the female plant of this large, evergreen shrub produces bright red berries. They attract a wide variety of birds – mourning doves, quail, ducks, turkeys, and robins. The berries are poisonous to humans, but the leaves can be made into a delicious tea without the tannins in found in other caffeinated teas and coffee. It is actually the only naturally occurring native plant in the US that contains caffeine.
This is a Dwarf Yaupon Holly hedge at the Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo.
Coco plum, Chrysobalanus icaco, is a beautiful shrub for part-shade that can get up to 15 feet tall, or be manicured into a hedge or privacy screen. There is also a low growing variety. They produce a mild-tasting but yummy white or purple fruit. We have the red-tipped variety which has purple fruit. It can be made into an incredibly tasty jam if you have enough. The leaves have a unique texture that make the plant stand out in your landscaping. . The seeds can be be raw or roasted and used like almonds. Birds go crazy over the fruit, and bees loves the small white blooms.
If you’ve ever noticed a strikingly shiny leafed shrub in a shady park or roadside, it may have been Wild Coffee, Pyschotria nervosa. There are a few different varieties that are native to Florida. Bees and butterflies love the blooms, and cardinals and blue jays feast on the red berries. You can use the berries to make a black coffee like drink but I’ve heard it’s not delicious. If a berry happens to be eaten by a foraging toddler, that’s completely fine because they are edible.
There are many other Florida native plants that are beautiful in your landscape and edible for both birds and people. For more info, check out our virtual class where we go over about 20 different native plants, what parts to eat and how to grow them.