Feed The Birds: 10 Plants With Great Winter Seedheads

Once their petals fade, cut flowers tend to end up in the garbage. But outside, it’s a different story. Not only do dried blooms enhance a garden, but their seedheads provide food to birds and wildlife. And those two reasons alone should make us think twice before cutting our plants back for winter.

SEEDHEADS ADD STRUCTURE 

It’s true. When left uncut, dried flower stalks can be every bit as striking as bare winter trees. Much like a sepia photo, their rich brown tint lends a warm, comforting feel to the garden. 

Winter interest doesn’t have to be all about evergreens. Take a second look at these faded beauties and see them for their sculptural forms. They’ll provide structure to your cold-weather garden.

BIRDS LOVE THEM

That being said, the primary reason to leave certain plants uncut is for their seedheads. During the winter months, the dried flowers of many summer and fall-blooming perennials provide food to many insects, birds and wildlife. Small birds often perch right on top of the seedhead to forage, while larger birds rummage for seeds on the ground.

And many birds that eat insects in summer switch to seeds in winter once these resources are no longer available.

Sunflower seeds rank high among seed-eating birds like cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches and red-bellied woodpeckers. Birds like American goldfinches, by contrast, tend to gravitate towards smaller composite flowers like asters and coreopsis. And for most birds, the dried inflorescences of ornamental grasses furnish essential food, while the plants themselves provide great wildlife habitats.

rabbit sheltering in dried grass

A rabbit sheltering in dried grass/Photo: shutterstock

Winter is a harsh season for many animals since natural food sources are scarce. Waiting to cut back dried plants directly benefits your local wildlife.

10 PLANTS WITH BEAUTIFUL SEEDHEADS

Of course, you should still prune those plants whose stems collapse or decay. But when it come to the sturdier plants, like the ones listed below, let them remain upright in the garden during the winter. You’ll be rewarded with a flurry of wildlife activity. Chop these plants down in the early spring when new growth starts to appear.

burdock

The beautiful seedheads of burdock/Photo: shutterstock

ECHINACEA (CONEFLOWER)

Stripped of its pink petals, echinacea’s (coneflower) magnificent pyramidal cone is hard to ignore. Blue jays, cardinals and goldfinches all enjoy eating its seeds. The larger the group, the better. 

Echinacea seedhead

RUDBECKIA (BLACK-EYED SUSAN)

Late to the scene, rudbeckias (Black-eyed Susans) add a welcome blast of color to the late-summer garden. And some would say that their distinctive black seedheads are every bit as beautiful as their flowers. Like coneflowers, these sturdy plants will remain standing for much of the winter. And goldfinches, nuthatches, chickadees and towhees all enjoy feasting on their tiny dark cones.

Black-eyed Susans are veritable bird-feeders

JOE PYE WEED

Joe Pye Weed is as happy growing on the roadside as it is in the garden. In the summer, its mauve blooms are covered with pollinators. Once its flowers have faded, the seedheads also provide seeds to chickadees, wrens and titmice as well as the fluff to build their winter nests.

American goldfinch feasting on Joe Pye Weed

Goldfinch feasting on Joe Pye Weed/Photo: shutterstock

SCABIOSA (PINCUSHION FLOWER)

Scabiosa columnaria’s distinctive prickly round seedhead leaves no doubt as to how it acquired its common name, pincushion flower. Birds eat its ripe seeds in the fall.

scabiosa seedhead

Scabiosa seedhead/Photo: shutterstock

ORNAMENTAL GRASSES

During the winter, many native birds like sparrows and finches forage for seeds from ornamental grasses, just as they do in the wild. The plants’ brown flowerheads furnish seeds throughout the winter. And their dense foliage provides great shelter to wildlife. 

snow on ornamental grass

Dried flowers of ornamental grass/Photo: shutterstock

SEDUM

Almost more beautiful in autumn than in summer, sedum’s flat, brick-red flower clusters last well into the winter. During the hot weather months, they’re covered with pollinators. But in the winter, upright varieties like ‘Autumn Joy’ provide an abundance of food to finches, chickadees and other seed-eating birds. 

dried flowerheads of sedum

Dried flowerheads of Sedum/Photo: shutterstock

COREOPSIS

In the summer, this cheerful plant with nectar-rich blooms is a magnet for pollinators, including hummingbirds. And in the fall and early winter, its dried flowers provide food for sparrows, chickadees, cardinals, goldfinches and other seed-eating birds.

coreopsis seedhead

Coreopsis seedheads/Photo: shutterstock

EVENING PRIMROSE

As its name implies, evening primrose is known for its flowers that open at night and generally close in late morning. Its stiff seed pods have four chambers, each of which contains 300+ reddish brown seeds. Produced in September, the seeds are favorites of wildlife and goldfinches, in particular.

evening primrose

Evening Primrose

MULLEIN (VERBASCUM)

This silver, velvety leaved plant with tall yellow flowers often appears unannounced in the garden. Originally from Europe, it has naturalized all over the world. Since its large rosettes survive the cold weather, mullein makes a great home for overwintering insects like ladybugs. Its seeds are also eaten by many birds.

Mullein growing wild in a field

 

Aster Flowers: Your Guide To Who’s Who In The Family

One of the many things I love about late summer are the throngs of colorful, star-shaped flowers that pop up all over the landscape. Most of us are familiar with the yellow ones (sunflowers). But did you know that the same family also produces flowers in purple, red, pink and white? These plants are all part of the Aster family, Asteraceae, the largest and most diverse group in the plant kingdom.

THE ASTER FAMILY STORY

Indeed, the Aster family (also known as Compositae and daisy) is exceedingly large. There are estimated to be over 27,000 known species. They may differ in color, shape and form, but most share two key characteristics. Most plants are composed of two types of flowers, disc and ray.

Gaillardia is a member of the aster family.

Yes, they may look like one flower, but asters are actually composed of many, all fused onto a single flower head. Disc flowers are located in the center and ray flowers are found at the perimeter. The ray flowers are what we commonly refer to as petals.

Zoom in on the photo and you’ll see that the disk is not flat, but domed. And it’s made up of hundreds of tiny flowers.

Leucanthemum (daisy) displaying both tubular and ray florets.

That said, within the family, there are also deviations. Some species consist of only disc flowers while others have only ray. 

The flower head of Globe Thistle contains no petal flowers.

Scientists believe that the aster flower head, which also contains seeds and nutrients, helps the plants store energy during periods of drought. It also may contribute to their longevity. In my own experience, I’ve noticed that once established, my Aster family members like coneflower, daisy and blanket flower require very little water. And certainly the many roadside sunflowers, daisies and asters are living proof of these flowers’ remarkable survival ability.

UNEXPECTED FAMILY MEMBERS

Of course every family has its outliers, and the Aster family has a few. These include the food crops lettuce, chicory and globe artichokes. Notice the two types of flowers, both tubular and ray, on the mountain lettuce bloom below.

Mountain lettuce

TAKE THE ASTER FAMILY QUIZ!

Despite all these variations, I still find the yellow asters the hardest to identify. At first glance, many of the flowers look alike. But on closer inspection, their flowers are all slightly different.

Below are some well-known Aster family members that bloom in late summer and early fall. Can you identify them? (For answers, please see below.)

Answers: (from top) Coreopsis grandiflora, Golden Marguerite, Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susan), Helianthus tuberosis (Jerusalem artichoke), Helenium autumnale (Common Sneezeweed), Helianthus annum (Sunflower), Heliopsis helianthoides (Smooth Oxeye), Gaillardia (Indian Blanket Flower), Arnica montana

GREAT ASTERS FOR GARDENS

Ready to add some of these beautiful flowers to your garden? (or just be able to identify some more members of the family). Following is a list of well-known aster species and their value in the garden.

ORNAMENTALS

echinacea purpurea

Echinacea purpurea

These popular flowers can be found in gardens all over the world. Popular members include: New England Aster, Echinacea, Rudbeckia, Cosmos, Daisy, Fleabane, Dahlia, Coreopsis, Liatris, Blanket Flower, Fleabane, Zinnia, Chrysanthemum, Oxeye daisy and Yarrow.

HERBAL TEAS, MEDICINE AND FOOD

arnica flower

Arnica flower

Aster flowers, leaves and roots have been used for millennia to treat various ailments and diseases. These species include Calendula (Pot marigold), Chamomile, Echinacea, Arnica, Endive, Lettuce and Artemisia.

GREAT NECTOR PRODUCERS

fleabane

Fleabane

Since they bloom late in the summer and into the fall, asters are a great source of nectar and pollen for pollinators. Some of the best producers are Helianthus annus (Sunflower), Goldenrod, New England Aster and Fleabane.

INSECTICIDAL PROPERTIES

French marigold

French marigold, Tagetes patula

Some asters are great at repelling insects. The most well-known among them are marigolds. French marigolds are known to repel whiteflies while Mexican marigolds are said to not only stave off insects but rabbits as well. Other effective ‘insecticidal’ species include Tanacetum, False Fleabane and Chrysanthemum.

WEEDS

ragweed

Ragweed is a member of the aster family.

Weeds are members, too. Dandelion, Ragwort, Ragweed and Sneezeweed are all part of the Aster family.

Want to know more? For a detailed list of Asteraceae, its genera and where the family fits in the plant kingdom, click here for the USDA Natural Resources Conversation Service.

Looking for garden inspiration? To see photos of my designs, including plant lists, check out my Instagram at carole.herebydesign. I post seasonally from spring through fall. 

 

When and How To Prune Azaleas

I like to think of azaleas as mixed on an artist’s palette. Come mid-spring, they paint the landscape in broad strokes of brilliant color. Most seldom require pruning. That said, older shrubs can outgrow their space or become unruly. Before giving them a haircut, though, it’s key to know when and how to prune.

The Main Types of Azaleas

Azaleas are part of the Rhododendron family, a large genus of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs. In April and May, they produce masses of long-lasting flowers ranging from bright white to crimson. Some deciduous varieties produce unusual tones of orange and yellow. 

Evergreen azaleas are mostly native to Japan. They tend to be smallish in size, ranging in height from 4 to 6 feet.  

Deciduous azaleas, on the other hand, tend to be larger. Some can grow as tall as 15 feet. All native North American azaleas are deciduous.

Native azalea ‘Stonewall Jackson’

Although some varieties do well in full sun, most azaleas prefer high shade. Like hydrangeas, they favor slightly acid soil (a pH of 5.5 – 6). Before planting, do a soil test to determine if your soil is acidic enough. If not, add an amendment like HollyTone, making sure to follow the directions carefully.

Azaleas can be planted in early spring or fall. But in my experience, most are happiest with fall planting as they can develop their root structure over the winter. 

How To Prune Azaleas

Most azaleas seldom require pruning. But if you must – always prune them right after their flowers have faded and before next year’s buds start forming. This is typically around the beginning of July. Cutting azaleas back in late summer, fall or winter will remove next spring’s flowers. 

In my view, azaleas look best when pruned in a natural shape. Unlike rhododendrons that flower at the end of a stem, azaleas flower along the sides as well as the end. That means you don’t have to worry about pruning them back to another branch. They’ll grow a new stem right above where you cut. 

If, however, you observe damaged or dead branches, the strategy is slightly different. Cut damaged branches to just beyond the break where it joins a leaf. And cut dead branches back to their point of origin.

How To Prune Encore Azaleas

Encore Azaleas appeared in the 1990’s, the result of a cross between two Asian varieties by a Louisiana plantsman name Buddy Lee.  Unlike the usual varieties that set buds once a year, Encore Azaleas produce buds each time they produce new growth, which can be several times during the season. As a result, you can prune these azaleas two and even three times from spring to mid summer.

Do not, however, prune your Encore Azaleas after they have finished flowering in the fall. This will stimulate new growth which can be damaged by falling temperatures. As a general rule, stop your pruning two months before the frost date in your area.

How To Prune Overgrown Azaleas

Many times old shrubs outgrow their locations, or turn spindly or sparse. You can ‘heavy’ prune them in winter or very early spring before the leaves start to appear. This is called rejuvenation pruning. 

To do this all at once, cut the branches back by a third or one-half, trimming all of the branches to maintain a uniform shape.

Most experts spread heavy pruning out over several years. This prevents the shrubs from becoming eyesores during their rejuvenation. To employ this method, prune a third of the longest, oldest branches down to within 12 inches of the ground each year for three years. This will encourage the shrub to branch out and fill in over the seasons as you continue your pruning.

By the end of three years, all of the old wood will be removed and you’ll be left with a strong, healthy shrub.

 

 

D.C. In Bloom: The Story of Our Nation’s Cherry Trees

Having lived in Washington, D.C. for decades, I’ve come to mark spring by the blooming of the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin. And due to this long-lived tradition, I am an avid observer of the weather. Some years, I’ve donned a heavy jacket to see the flowers. Other times, I’ve worn shorts. Still other years, fickle spring winds have spelled the early demise of the delicate pink blossoms.

To avoid the crowds, we always arrive early on the National Mall. And by early, I mean right after sunrise. By 8:00 am, there are usually thousands of people already snapping pictures under the fluffy pink canopy. It is estimated that more than 1,500,000 visitors descend on the National Mall each year to take in the magnificent blossoms. Continue reading

How To Grow Herbs Indoors

Who doesn’t love the taste of herbs cut fresh from the garden? Cold weather doesn’t have to spell the end of that enjoyment. In fact, you can grow bundles of savory herbs throughout all the seasons. All you need are some plants, a sunny window and a little TLC in the form of good soil, attentive watering and a regular supply of food. Continue reading

Flowering Kale: The Coolest Cool-Season Ornamental

Long before it became a trending food, flowering kale was a garden star, delivering a pop of color to fall’s graying landscape. The plant is not only prized for its striking foliage but it’s also one of just a few species that thrives in cold weather. In fact, flowering kale likes cold temperatures so much that it often stays attractive well into winter. I can’t think of a better choice for fall gardens and containers. Continue reading

Great Small Trees For the Urban/Suburban Landscape

They say good things come in small packages. And when it comes to trees, I’d say that’s certainly true. While tall species like maples, oaks and elms boast lofty canopies, small trees flaunt their beauty up close. They’re a great addition to any landscape. But they’re especially suited to the smaller space, where even one, well-chosen specimen can brighten up a garden. Continue reading