wildlife value

Plant Spotlight: Smooth Sumac and Staghorn Sumac

What It Is

Sumacs are plants from the genus Rhus that grow around the world, with over a dozen true sumac species in North America. Despite the name, poison sumac is included with species including poison oak and poison ivy in the Toxicodendron genus. Sumac’s dried, ground fruit is a common spice in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking, and the dried berries can also be used to made a lemonade-like beverage.

There is significant variety in size and form in the genus, but Rhus glabra, smooth sumac, and Rhus typhina, staghorn sumac, are two of the larger forms that can be grown as small trees. Though they are nearly identical in appearance and growing conditions, Rhus glabra is native across North America, including the Spokane region, while Rhus typhina is native only to the eastern half of the continent. Both grow naturally as large, multi-stemmed shrubs forming large colonies, but a bit of yearly pruning will keep them trained into a tree form.

Rhus typhina 's rust-colored seedheads persist through the winter for a striking visual display.

Rhus typhina's rust-colored seedheads persist through the winter for a striking visual display.

Why to Grow It

Smooth sumac and staghorn sumac are fantastic plants for four-season interest. In a garden setting, sumac’s bare lower trunks offer architectural interest in spring and summer, while its feathery compound leaves create a dense screen of green foliage. Fall and winter are its real time to shine, though. Large conical seedheads mature throughout the summer, arriving at a deep rust color by autumn.The contrast with the green foliage is stupendous, but even better is the brilliant orange-red fall color. Sumac is one of the first plants to change, making it easy to identify along roadsides and in its native habitat. After the leaves drop, the seedheads persist through the winter, offering a bright spot of color as well as important food for wildlife.

Where to Put It

Sumac is an excellent plant for naturalizing marginal areas, as it does well in extremely poor soils and is very drought tolerant. It can often be seen on steep hills or along the roadside, as it is also resistant to erosion and pollution. In a residential landscape, a single-trunked tree will grow to about 15’ high with a slightly wider spread. Sumac will take some shade, but prefers full sun, and has low water requirements. Because the foliage is massed towards the top of the plant, sumac can be complemented with low- to medium-height perennials and shrubs around it to provide a visual balance.

Plant Spotlight: Symphoricarpos Species

What It Is

Symphoricarpos is a genus of shrubs commonly known as snowberry or coralberry, depending on the color of the fruit. It is native throughout North America, with the species Symphoricarpos albus common throughout the Inland Northwest. Our native snowberry is easily recognizable in the autumn and winter for its dense clusters of white berries, which persist months after the leaves fall. Its delicate foliage and small pink flowers are attractive but inconspicuous. All varieties are fairly small shrubs, generally topping out at five feet high and wide.

This hybrid coralberry holds its bright berries well into winter.

This hybrid coralberry holds its bright berries well into winter.

Why to Grow It

As the name suggests, snowberry and coralberry are prized for their prominent berries. A variety of cultivars and hybrids have been bred by the floral industry for a spectrum of pink berry colors and longevity in cut arrangements. You can enjoy those improvements just as easily in your garden, where the berries can also provide a winter food source for songbirds. Snowberry is also an excellent plant for naturalizing areas and erosion control, as it slowly spreads to form thickets when left to its own devices. Regularly harvesting its berry-covered stems, however, is enough to keep it in check.

Where to Put It

Symphoricarpos should be planted in full sun to part shade. Native Symphoricarpos albus is quite drought-tolerant, but nursery cultivars do best with supplemental water in the summers. Snowberry is fairly unremarkable most of the year, so place it with other plants that will offer more dynamic interest through the spring and summer, then let it take center stage in the winter. If you plan to use the berries in flower arrangements, consider locating snowberry off a covered porch or other area where it can be easily accessed when snow begins to pile up.

How to Use Plants to Attract Birds

Watching lively birds flit around the yard can add an extra layer of enjoyment to your outdoor space. Bird feeders will certainly bring avian visitors, but a little planning and some well-selected plants can create a full service bird habitat. Birds have certain needs for survival, and by making sure your landscape meets those needs, you can turn your yard into a bird-watching hotspot. Here are the basic steps to take to invite birds in.

The dark-eyed junco is a year-round visitor to Spokane and Coeur D'Alene and is common even in urban gardens.

The dark-eyed junco is a year-round visitor to Spokane and Coeur D'Alene and is common even in urban gardens.

Provide Shelter

No matter the time of year, birds need shelter. They need somewhere to hide from predators, somewhere to build their nests, or simply somewhere to get out of the weather. To attract a variety of birds to your yard, provide them with a variety of plants to shelter in. Each species has its own preference about what height or density of vegetation it prefers, and this can change throughout the seasons. Plant trees with a mix of large, medium, and small shrubs to give a range of options.

When choosing plants, consider winter as well. Evergreens with dense foliage can give excellent protection from predators, but also provide extra insulation in frigid temperatures. Dead trees are also important sources of shelter for birds. If you have enough space on your property that a dead tree won’t threaten structures or people, leave it standing to create an outstanding habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Provide Food

Though you can provide food for birds year-round, selecting plants that will provide seeds and berries throughout the winter will give birds an important resource in the lean winter months. By planting a variety of food sources, you can add some diversity beyond standard bird seeds and attract different birds in the process.

While plants with showy winter berries might seem like the most obvious food choice for birds, they are also drawn to seeds from many plants you may not think of. Cones from pines, firs, spruces, and other evergreens hold nutritious seeds, as do spent perennial wildflowers like lupine, echinacea, and milkweed. Ornamental grasses can even provide nutritious seeds for birds. To actually be useful to birds, however, it’s important to leave your garden cleanup for the springtime. By deadheading, trimming, and pruning in the fall, you remove valuable nourishment that could otherwise sustain birds through the winter.

The small cones of western red cedar hold seeds for a wintertime snack.

The small cones of western red cedar hold seeds for a wintertime snack.

In warmer months, insects are a large part of the diet for many birds, so consider making your landscape favorable to them as well. Use native plants, which have been shown to attract more insects, both overall numbers and numbers of species, than exotic plants. Limit or eliminate pesticide use in your garden, as many products are toxic to organisms beyond what they are designed to control.

Hummingbirds also require a healthy supply of insects to feed on, but otherwise have different needs than songbirds, as they feed on flower nectar rather than seeds. Tubular flowers like penstemon, salvia, and agastache are fantastic food sources. And while hummingbirds certainly enjoy sugar water feeders, the red dye in store-bought mixtures is actually harmful to them. A homemade solution is easy to make by boiling one part sugar and four parts water.

Other Considerations

There are, of course, other things you can do to make your landscape attractive to birds. Building bird houses appropriate for the breeding birds in your area could yield a nest, which will give you weeks of enjoyment. A bird bath provides a place for grooming, which is critical to a bird’s health, as well as providing drinking water. In the winter when open water is scarce, a bird bath with a heating element will become a magnet for songbirds.

A basic overall principle to remember is that making your landscape better resemble nature will attract nature into it. To enjoy birds in your own backyard, you may have to make concessions for their happiness. You might see a tangle of shrubbery, but they see a cozy place to hide from a predator. A mess of spent flowerheads is a wintertime meal for a bird, and an aphid infestation is a summertime buffet. With a little planning and compromise, however, you can attract a variety of fascinating avian neighbors to your yard.

Plant Spotlight: Ilex x meserveae

What It Is

Commonly called blue holly, Ilex x meserveae is a group of hybrid hollies originally bred by Kathleen Meserve of New York after World War II to feature showy foliage and berries while maintaining cold-hardiness for Northeast winters. Size varies depending on variety, but generally ranges between 6’-12’ high and wide.

Why to Grow It

When most of the landscape is dull and dormant in the winter, Ilex x meserveae puts on a show with its glossy leaves and clusters of red berries. The berries provide winter food for birds, adding to the interest.

Where to Put It

Ilex x meserveae needs full sun to part shade to thrive. It will mature to a large shrub, so take advantage of its evergreen foliage and showy berries to screen a boring wall or fence. It also works well as an evergreen hedge. Ilex x meserveae requires a medium amount of water and will need artificial irrigation in the Spokane/Coeur D’Alene climate during the summer.

Like all hollies, a male and female plant are each necessary for the female plant to produce berries. One male plant can pollinate several female plants, but it’s important to ensure that the varieties flower at the same time. Most cultivars, however, come with a male and female form that have been bred so that their bloom times align. The Berri-Magic line even includes a male and female plant in each container to ensure berry production.

Glossy evergreen leaves and red berries make this holly a winter showpiece.

Glossy evergreen leaves and red berries make this holly a winter showpiece.

Plant Spotlight: Tsuga Heterophylla

What it Is

Western hemlock's delicate evergreen foliage provides interest throughout the winter.

Western hemlock's delicate evergreen foliage provides interest throughout the winter.

Western hemlock, Tsuga heterophylla, is the state tree of Washington, where it mostly grows in the Cascades and the Olympic Peninsula. It prefers shady, moist conditions and is not found native in Spokane County, but it does grow throughout the Idaho Panhandle. Trees in the wild can grow to 100’ high and 30’ wide, but are smaller in cultivation.

Why to Grow It

Western hemlock is an attractive conifer tree for shady spaces. Its small needles and cones offer delicate evergreen interest, and it is a good tree for attracting birds. There are only a few cultivars cultivars available currently, but Tsuga heterophylla’s superior resistance to the hemlock woolly adelgid makes it a more reliable choice than the widely grown Tsuga canadensis. The insect is steadily devastating hemlock populations throughout the Eastern US, but western hemlocks do not show the same mortality when infested.  

Where to Put It

At least partial shade is necessary for the western hemlock in the Spokane/Coeur D’Alene region, where our hot, dry summers can stress the tree. Northern and eastern exposures are preferred, and Tsuga heterophylla does well in moist soil, as long as it is well-draining. The lacy, evergreen foliage is a great addition to a woodland or shade garden. Its soft needles won’t poke or jab like many other conifers, making it a suitable choice next to patios or pathways, where people might brush against it.