Once flowers dry up in the vase, we tend to throw them in the garbage. But outdoors, it’s a whole different story. Not only do the seedheads of spent flowers bring beauty to the garden, but they also furnish food to hungry birds and wildlife. And those two reasons alone should cause us to think twice before we start cutting our plants back for the winter.
SEEDHEADS ADD STRUCTURE TO A WINTER GARDEN
When left standing, dried flower stalks and stems can be every bit as striking as bare trees or the skeletons of leafless shrubs. Just like a sepia photo, the soft brown tint of many dried plants brings a warmth and intensity to the winter garden. (They also look great in dried arrangements.)
Looking for winter interest? It 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 add structure to your cold-weather garden.
BIRDS LOVE THEM
That being said, the most important reason to leave some plants standing is for their seedheads. During the cold winter months, the dried flowers of many summer and fall-blooming plants are important food sources for many insects, birds and wildlife. Small birds like chickadees and goldfinches often perch right on the seedhead, while larger birds forage for seeds on the ground. And many birds that eat insects during the summer switch to seeds in the winter once these resources are no longer available.
Not surprisingly, sunflower seeds rank high among most seed-eating birds, including cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches and red-bellied woodpeckers to name just a few. American goldfinches in particular also 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.
A rabbit sheltering in dried grass/Photo: shutterstock
Winter is a harsh season for many animals as natural food sources become scarce. Waiting to cut dried plants down 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.
The beautiful seedheads of burdock/Photo: shutterstock
Denuded of its purple/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.
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.
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/Photo: shutterstock
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.
Dried flowers of ornamental grass/Photo: shutterstock
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/Photo: shutterstock
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 seedheads/Photo: shutterstock
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.
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