Part one of a series of articles
Not all trees and shrubs that attract birds are allergy-free choices, but it is perfectly possible to create a personal landscape that will be easy on your allergies, and will also attract a large number of song birds.
Insect pests not only weaken our landscape plants, but when their numbers are high, they trigger allergies themselves. It works like this: insects gang up on a plant, sucking vital juices from it. The insects then secrete a sticky, nutrient rich substance we call "honeydew," and on this honeydew mold spores land and germinate. Eventually the buggy plant is harboring not only an abundance of insects, but also a great deal of highly allergenic mold spores. The insect dander itself is also extremely allergenic.
So, how do wild birds fit into this picture?
Almost all species of wild birds eat a large amount of insects; even tiny hummingbirds consume vast amounts of small insect pests. The more wild birds in a yard, the fewer the number of insect pests. Thus, attracting wild birds to your yard is yet another way to make your own landscape less allergenic. The other way, of course, is to choose plants that are known not to trigger allergies in the first place.
With the aim of attracting more insect-pest eating songbirds to your yard, do put up bird feeders, add a bird bath, put up some good bird houses, and plant things that will attract and feed wild birds.
Here I'd like to explore five of the very best landscape tree choices…. trees known to be low-pollen, allergy-free choices, that also are especially attractive to songbirds. In future articles I'll explore some more tree choices, and some vines and shrubs that are allergy-free and handy for attracting songbirds.
1. Amelanchier species, common names: Serviceberry Tree, Juneberry, or Shadbush. The little native serviceberry tree got its common name because the American Indians used to use the small, sweet, dark blue berries of this tree in their pemmican. The berries are tasty, rich in vitamins and antioxidants, and are loved by almost all wild birds. The tree is sometimes also called shadbush, because it is so early blooming…it is often in full bloom when the shad are running up the rivers to spawn. In many areas Amelanchier will be the very first tree to bloom, and it is especially beautiful because when it is full of bright white flowers, most of the other deciduous trees are still bare and dormant.
There are at least two-dozen different species of Amelanchier, and a good number of hybrids as well. All of the species have excellent winter hardiness, none are known to cause allergies, and the trees will grow and thrive into cold zone three. Some species are more like large bushes and others make trees that will grow to around 18-20 feet tall. Amelanchier is an attractive tree in all seasons and its fall color is excellent. Amelanchier were introduced from the US and Canada to Europe in the 17th Century, and are now widely grown in England. The suggestion here is to plant several species of Amelanchier for the birds, and plant an extra one or two for yourself too, as the fruit really is delicious.
2. 'Illinois Everbearing hybrid' Mulberry is a medium-sized, fast-growing, easy to grow tree that is widely adaptable to both cold and hot climates. The tree originated in 1947 in Illinois and was first sold in 1958. A hybrid cross between red and black mulberries, the 'Illinois Everbearing hybrid' is easier to grow than either of its parents. Most of the flowers on this mulberry tree are female and pollen-free, and most of the dark purple, almost black fruit will be seedless. The long, slim fruits are about an inch long and here in California they start getting ripe toward the end of June, and continue to make fruit well into fall. The fruits are very sweet, exceptionally fine tasting, and can be used to make mulberry jam or mulberry wine…that is if the birds don't beat you to them! Almost all songbirds are very fond of ripe mulberries and these fruits will attract a wide range of birds. The trees are pest-free, not at all fussy, thrive with ample irrigation but are also quite drought resistant.
In Europe fruiting mulberry trees are common and many people enjoy eating mulberries. Here in the US though, few folks have ever even tasted a ripe mulberry, and most of the mulberry trees grown and sold are male clones of white mulberry, the so-called "fruitless mulberry trees." These male trees form no fruit, attract almost no birds, and they produce a great deal of highly allergenic pollen. If you already have a large fruitless mulberry tree, they are quite easy to graft, so if you can get some scion wood from an 'Illinois Everbearing hybrid' tree, you can graft it onto the fruitless male tree. Occasionally these trees will also sprout and grow from direct-stuck dormant cuttings, made about a foot long of wood about the thickness of a pencil. Grafted trees are available at many good nurseries and through mail order nurseries. Plant your mulberry tree away from the patio or the sidewalks, as the purple fruit will drop and stain cement.
3. Washington Hawthorn, Crataegus oxycanthus, is a medium-sized to small tree that produces a mass of bright white flowers in the spring and a large crop of little bright red berries in the fall. Washington Hawthorn is widely adapted and will grow and thrive in most plant zones. In Oregon and Washington the trees may grow to 35 feet tall, but in most other states a mature tree will be less than 20 feet tall. Hawthorn trees are tolerant of considerable rain, but at the same time, they are quite drought resistant once established. The red berries of the Washington Hawthorn are edible for humans, but not especially tasty…still, they are considered to be very valuable medicinally, as they have long been considered to be good for the heart. Because they are not very sweet, the wild birds will not usually eat the berries until late in the winter, or early in the spring. This works well for both the birds, and us, because the bare tree in winter is highly ornamental with its crop of bright red berries. In winter, when food for wild birds is scare, the berries provide much needed sustenance.
A Washington Hawthorn tree may not bloom and fruit until it has been in the ground for several years, so the suggestion here is to buy and plant the largest one you can find or afford. This choice landscape tree is good for the birds and makes a fine addition to any garden. Fall color is also quite good.
4. Black Elderberry, Sambucus nigra, is a European shrub or small tree that will grow well in shady spots. A rapid growing, multi-stemmed, creamy white-flowered plant that makes a multitude of small, shiny black berries that are much loved by many wild birds. The Black Elderberry is generally pest-free and easy to grow in most plant zones. There are some twenty different cultivars of Black Elderberry sold, all of them with somewhat different fruit. Black Elderberry is the preferred elderberry for making traditional elderberry wine(made from the flowers or the fruit) and the bushy plants are often favored as nesting sites for numerous songbirds. While elderberries will grow in fairly wet soils, they are also somewhat drought tolerant in drier climates. The native US species of elderberry are also useful as bird plants, but are not as good as the European Black Elderberry, nor are their fruits as plentiful or as tasty. Not always available at retail nurseries, Black Elderberries can be found through numerous mail order nurseries.
5. Persimmon trees, Diospyros species, are deluxe landscape trees in all regards. Long-lived, drought tolerant, pest-free, with super attractive bark in winter and extraordinary fiery fall color, persimmon trees can do it all. Persimmon trees are dioecious, i.e. separate-sexed, and all fruiting female trees are allergy-free, pollen-free trees. Through a process known as parthenocarpic fruiting, many female persimmon cultivars will produce a good crop of (seedless) fruit without any male tree to pollinate them.
The American cultivars, Diospyros americana, are generally more cold hardy than are the Japanese cultivars, D. japonica, but the fruit of the American persimmons must be dead ripe before it is eaten or it will be remarkably astringent. The Japanese cultivars, hardy into zone 6, such as 'Fuyu', produce large, flattened red-orange fruit that is good to eat firm or ripe. Ripe persimmons are excellent for baking into persimmon cookies or persimmon breads. Persimmon trees attract a large number of different species of birds. A mature "Fuyu' persimmon tree will be about twenty feet tall, with a spread about the same as its height. The flowers on the persimmon trees are green and almost invisible, hidden among the large, heart-shaped leaves. In springtime persimmon leaves are a wonderful tender green color. As the season progresses the leathery leaves turn a dark green and by fall they are a wonderful mix of bright red, yellow, orange and green. No other tree in the landscape produces a finer fall color than the persimmon.
In the fall when the beautiful leaves start to drop, the large fruits start to ripen and turn a cheery orange-red color. These fruits attract many kinds of warblers, orioles, woodpeckers, sapsuckers, titmice, thrush, flickers, and other wild birds. We generally pick and eat many of the fruit on the lower branches and leave all the high up fruit for the birds. The fruit ripens over a long, extended period of time, resulting in a very pretty tree with a fine crop of fruit and songbirds. By winter the birds will have eaten all of the persimmons, but the tree is still attractive, with its interesting widespread form and its dark, chunky bark covered trunk.