1 of 2
2 of 2
A lot of yard and garden cleanup awaited me last fall, after a sweltering summer. I had a mess on my hands, but was glad – more than glad, ecstatic – to be outside, day after day, drinking in the world. One of the things that caught my attention was how quickly the small trees, shrubs and vines that rimmed the edge of my clearing were coloring up – more quickly, it seemed, than what I saw driving to town. Was I imagining it?
Gradually I understood that it wasn’t just luck either. I constantly battle the woody plants that would like to lay claim to the clearing’s sunlight, aggressively lopping invaders off at ground level. Dozens of newly sprouted buckeye seedlings, multiflora rosebushes and the like assert themselves every spring. Off with their heads! But I don’t cut back everything. There are plants I spare – have been sparing for years – natives whose leaves provide food for the caterpillars of some of my favorite moths and butterflies: spicebush, sassafras, sumac (though I repel the latter’s bold forays into the garden beds, I allow it to grow along the edge). Of course, I spare the dogwoods too, for the graceful way their branches spread, and their lovely springtime display.
Quite by accident, this selection method has provided me with glorious early fall color. Each of these species colors up weeks before the oaks and beeches that tower above them. Why? It has to do with their seed distribution strategy. Spicebush, dogwood and sassafras produce drupes (stone fruits, i.e. those with a thin outer skin, pulpy middle and stony center enclosing the seed). The fleshy part of these drupes is full of fat, just the kind of thing that hungry migrating birds are looking for. The plants aren’t altruistic; they want – if plants can be said to want – their seed moved, perhaps not far, but far enough so that they won’t have to compete for nutrients with their offspring, should the seeds within the drupes germinate. To signal the presence of these meals for the would-be transporters, they turn their foliage into billboards.
“Good eats!” the bright leaves shout.
“We see you!” the birds shout back. “Coming!”
What birds? Birds you probably want to see as much as I do, birds you can see in fall, without driving to a birding hot spot, if you provide food for them. From my deck last fall, I watched an immature rose breasted grosbeak hop from one dogwood branch to another, out-foxing the tree, as it turned out, peeling the fatty pulp from the drupes without swallowing the seed. Swainson’s thrushes stopped by to feed in a pair of sassafras that have, thanks to my sparing them years ago, grown into trees. All the thrushes – hermit, gray-cheeked, wood and veeries – bluebirds and robins, catbirds, and cedar waxwings are major fruit-consumers. (Orioles, tanagers, towhees, flickers, woodpeckers, ruffed grouse and wild turkeys are also fruit-eaters.)
And while my catching sight of an exciting migrant occurs only occasionally, the bright foliage is around for weeks, brightening my surroundings. A win-win situation, surely. For early fall color and “wildlife value,” should you be inclined to feed birds something other than purchased sunflower seed, consider planting a few of these “foliar fruit flags”: dogwoods for metallic burgundy; spicebush for gold; sassafras for orange as brilliant as New England’s flaming sugar maples. For another gold, there’s poison ivy, though that’s one foliar fruit flag you’ll probably not want to cultivate.
High- and low-fat fruits
Plants producing colorful fall foliage and high lipid (fat) fruits—the biggest bang for a bird’s buck – include spicebush, dogwood, sassafras and Virginia creeper, black gum. Fruits produced by others are lower in lipids: hawthorn, chokecherry, greenbrier, mountain ash, mapleleaf viburnum, fox grape, poison ivy, winterberry, red cedar and common juniper.
The flesh that coats sumac berries has a high fat content, but there isn’t much of it, so birds have to eat lots of berries to realize much caloric gain. Here’s something to marvel at: while you and I would have trouble telling the high and low-lipid fruits apart, since they are colored alike, birds seem to know the difference, because by the end of the fall migration, most high lipid fruits are gone, while many low lipid fruits remain into winter, a boon to resident birds and mammals.
Interestingly, while some of the high lipid fruits are red, and therefore easy for birds to see, others, like Virginia creeper and sassafras, are dark colored, easy to miss. That makes the brightly colored leaves doubly important to fall migrants. Don’t sample these fruits yourself. They’re not sweet, but sour – pungent.
Five Favorites for Fall Color and Wildlife
When you’re cleaning up your yard this fall, consider sparing:
1) Sumac: not the poison kind, but one of the others (winged, smooth or staghorn). The pinnately compound leaves turn amazing shades of salmon, then scarlet. Red fruits remain into winter, providing color after the leaves have fallen and food for woodpeckers, wild turkey, ruffed grouse, bluebirds and others. The caterpillars of Io and Royal Walnut moths feed on the leaves.
2) Spicebush: not only do the leaves turn a lovely gold in the fall, the tiny greenish-yellow flowers are among the first to appear in spring, lighting up the woods with a golden glow. The shrub is a larval host for spicebush swallowtails and promethea moths.
3) Sassafras: the lobed leaves of sassafras come in three patterns (egg-shaped, mitten and three-lobed). Usually all three are present on a single shrub or tree. Fruits are eaten by songbirds, bobwhite and wild turkey; foliage is larval host for spicebush swallowtail, imperial, io, promethea and cecropia moths (and others).
4) Virginia creeper: this attractive vine, sometimes mistaken for poison ivy, although its compound leaves come in fives instead of threes, turns many shades of red in the fall. Its berries are dusty blue like blueberries, and are thrush favorites. The caterpillars of eight spotted foresters and several sphinx moths – pandorus, Abbott’s, hog and lettered – feed on its leaves.
5) Mapleleaf and arrowood viburnum: This is the only plant on the list that I have actually added to my back yard landscape, for its white flowers in spring, purplish black drupes, and (in fall) soft red foliage. Songbirds, ruffed grouse and wild turkey enjoy the fruit. Viburnums are larval hosts for spring azures, azalea sphinx and hummingbird clearwing moths.