Native Shrubs for Fall Color and Wildlife Benefits

I used to relish the brilliant red rush of color that burning bush provides in the fall.  I planted several in my yard and had one I could see through my front door sidelight that was dazzling every October. But even though winged burning bush is widely used in home landscapes, it is not native to North America and is considered an invasive exotic species from New England and the upper Midwest south to Florida and the Gulf Coast. Burning bush is a real threat to natural areas as it shades out native herbs and crowds out our native shrubs, many of which offer important habitat for birds and other wildlife.

So don’t plant a burning bush if you crave a beautiful crimson-red stunner in your fall landscape.  If you live in the eastern part of the country, consider one of these natives that also provide wonderful benefits for wildlife:

Virginia sweetspire Itea virginica L.

Virginia Sweetspire
Long tassles of small, white flowers bloom in spires all spring from arching branches on the native Virginia sweetspire shrub. Bees love them! Photo by Tammy Schmitt.
This native shrub is a real show stopper both in spring and fall. The fragrant white flowers of Virginia sweetspire attract butterflies and other pollinators and the foliage provides cover for birds and other wildlife.

Leaves on the Virginia sweetspire turn red to purple in fall and can last well into the winter on this native shrub. Photo by Sam Bahr, UMD Botanical Garden.
Leaves on the Virginia sweetspire turn red to purple in fall and can last well into the winter on this native shrub. Photo by Sam Bahr, UMD Botanical Garden.

Dwarf witchalder Fothergilla gardenii L.

Dwarf witchalder
In spring, butterflies are attracted to starburst shaped flowers that emerge before leaves on the native witchalder bush. Birds love the cover provided by the blue-green leaves that turn yellow,orange and deep red in fall. Photo by Charlotte Albers.
Witchalder, or Fothergilla, is a very cool bush in the spring — before the leaves appear, it’s branch ends are covered with white, bottlebrush flowers that are very fragrant and a wonderful treat for native butterflies and other pollinators. Then when the foliage comes out, birds use it for cover.

Shenandoah switchgrass Panicum virgatum

Shenandoah switchgrass
Shenandoah switchgrass provides shelter to many small butterflies and the rich, deep red color in fall is enhanced by feathery flower plumes on this native plant. Photo by Le Jardinet.
Shenandoah switchgrass can be used in place of a shrub and is ideal for attracting birds as it provides cover and nesting material–it is also a host plant to the wood nymph butterfly, the northern pearlyeye moth and several grass skipper butterflies.  The steely blue-green blades slowly turn a burgundy hue that intensifies as the season progresses.

Blueberry Vaccinium spp.

Blueberry bush
The native blueberry bush is frequented by birds such as bluebirds, flickers, orioles and thrushes who eat the fruit. Turtles also enjoy the berries and butterflies use the blueberry bush as a host plant.
Yes, blueberry bushes are native and their leaves become a lovely red in fall! Fruits on the blueberry bush are eaten by a wide array of birds and woodland animals. Striped hairstreak and henry’s elfin butterflies use the blueberry bush as a host plant.  Be sure to plant at least three bushes and have two different varieties to yield the best tasting berries.

Garden for Wildlife

Become a Wildlife Gardener with National Wildlife Federation. It’s free and you’ll get great wildlife gardening tips and learn how to certify your garden as an official habitat.