A bird-friendly garden needs good shrubs

When you want birds in your bushes, make sure you choose the right shrubs.

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    A clematis vine weaves through the dark foliage of elderberry.
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If you have water in your backyard — anything from a birdbath to a lake — you’ve sent a shout out to the birds. Water and birds are linked, so make your garden as bird-friendly as possible. And shrubs are the friendliest of plants.

In spite of the high-laugh value in Monty Python’s Spamalot — sending knights on a quest for shrubbery — the importance of this evergreen or deciduous woody vegetation is no joke. Shrubs provide birds with shelter, food, and protection from predators. They also add a needed layer between tall trees and shorter flowers. The payoff for you is low-maintenance, plus the pleasure of foliage, flowers and berries throughout the seasons.

So I invite you to start your own shrub quest with a winter planning list. Here’s a favorite few I grow in my Oregon garden:

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Practical and beautiful elderberries
It is said that during the Middle Ages in Europe, folks tipped their hats when they passed an elderberry bush, because it was the most useful of all plants. Back then, besides the edible flowers and berries, a fish-stunning poison was extracted from the elderberry — much handier than a fishing rod when you’re hungry — as well as important medical remedies. And the hollow stems made terrific flutes.

Now it’s mostly the birds that appreciate the dark dangling fruit of common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis). If you have room, tuck this large — to 12 feet — rangy American native species back along the fence and enjoy the flat white flowers, which supposedly can be dipped in a light tempura-type batter and fried, although I’ve never tried it — and dark black berries — legendary for elderberry wine, but again, I’ve never tried it. The birds get all of mine.

Several elderberries with showier foliage can take center stage in your garden, such as S. nigra ‘Madonna’ which has pale cream variegations on its dark green leaves. A newcomer, S. Black Lace (S.n. ‘Eva’), features dark, dramatic, finely cut foliage and pink flowers followed by black fruit.

For a splash of bright golden-green foliage and red berries, try S. racemosa ‘Sutherland Gold’. And if you need a dwarf variety in golden foliage, look for S.r. ‘Goldenlocks’.

Other bountiful berries
Planted as part of a hedgerow or as a single shrub, 10-to-12-foot tall American highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) has bright red fruit to keep birds busy. Smaller V. t. ‘Compactum’ grows only to to five or six feet.

In my part of the country, our native Oregon grapeholly (Mahonia aquifolium) has many outstanding characteristics that extend beyond the birds' bounty of purple clustered fruit. At three to six feet tall, this evergreen shrub -- which has glossy, prickly foliage and bright yellow fragrant flowers -- is happiest in shade to part shade.

Mahonia went to Europe for hybridizing, and came home with amazingly showy flowers, such as those on M. ‘Arthur Menzies’. In smaller gardens, you could use M. a. ‘Compacta’ which grows only three feet tall.

The currant family (Ribes) has plenty to offer you and the birds. Group together a male and female alpine currant (Ribes alpinum) for bright red fruits in June and July. If you plant buffalo currant (Ribes odoratum), a six- to eight-foot -tall shrub, you will get the added pleasure of fragrant clove-scented yellow flowers in spring followed by black fruit.

Next post, I’ll talk about choosing perennials around water that make us — and the birds — feel happy and at home.

Until then, here are other articles in this series about attracting birds to your garden:

These native plants attract birds to your winter garden

How to choose trees that will encourage birds to hang around your yard

Mary-Kate Mackey, co-author of “Sunset’s Secret Gardens — 153 Design Tips from the Pros” and contributor to the “Sunset Western Garden Book,” writes a monthly column for the Hartley Greenhouse webpage and numerous articles for Fine Gardening, Sunset, and other magazines. She teaches at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism & Communication. She writes about water in the garden for Diggin’ It.

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