October 11 2020
Cotoneaster (no, don’t say cotton Easter) is a humble low maintenance shrub from northern China that has long been sold as a windbreak shrub because it is so tough and reliable. While I have read that some don’t consider it highly ornamental, I think it’s qualities outweigh it’s sometimes ordinary appearance. It has dark green leaves and beautiful arching branches, small flowers followed by persistent black fruits, leaves that turn orange and red in the fall, and is deer resistant.
Let’s go back to that persistent fruit thing; these are fruits that hang on to the tree or shrub through the winter and thus provide food for birds when not a lot is available. Though the taste is unpleasant to us and the texture dry, the birds seem glad to have them. I quit feeding the birds about a year ago because the feeders were attracting house sparrows, flocks of starling, and ring necked doves, none of which are native. Those doves drive me crazy with their incessant, annoying calls, unlike the gentle cooing of mourning doves. While I don’t know that those birds are necessarily harmful, I was hoping to see a wider range of native birds.
As I planted more fruiting shrubs and trees, I began to see more variety in the birds visiting my gardens. Though I will cover some with netting (cherries) and fight the birds for them, I am generally willing to share. In fact, they can have every tiny apple on my ornamental crab apple trees. Newer cultivars of these trees have persistent fruit like the cotoneasters.
Some other things to plant to feed the birds are (though not all have persistent fruit) are serviceberries, dogwoods, junipers (blueberry like cones on female trees), spruces (seed bearing, persistent cones), grapes (Beta or Valiant-hardy in Montana), Virginia creeper (persistent fruit), nannyberry (viburnum species), hawthorn, roses (hips), mountain ash, and aronia (persistent, but keep some for yourself), buffaloberries, and currants. I’m sure there are many more things we can plant to feed the birds and I am also quite sure that you will attract a wider range of birds this way. Not to mention bees and butterflies.
One last thought-I found that if I leave the sunflowers standing in the garden over the winter, the chickadees are very pleased indeed. It’s delightful to watch them upside down plucking seeds from the hanging heads of sunflowers. Yes, you will probably have a mess of sunflower seedlings in the spring, but there are worse problems.
Cotoneaster acutifolius, from cotoneum meaning quince and aster meaning resembling asters and acutifolius meaning sharply pointed leaves.