ATTRACTING Birds & Butterflies to your yard
Part of what makes living in Arizona so alluring is the abundance of wildlife that our native trees, plants, and cacti attract. Each of the examples below are water-efficient, easy to maintain, and will add beautiful color and dimension to your landscape. No need for multiple bird feeders to attract birds and butterflies to your property. There will be no shortage of visitors with these trees, plants, and cacti.
Desert Ironwood (Olneya tesota)
The Ironwood is a perennial tree that can grow to 30 ft tall by 30 feet wide. Its gray-green leaves and half-inch lavender flowers bloom in the early spring. An excellent bird sanctuary, it produces pods containing dark seeds that are two inches long and one half to one-fourth inches across. The protein-rich seeds attract insects, who are then sought after by birds. The Ironwood’s dense canopy has been utilized by nearly 150 bird species, and the shade underneath it can shelter cacti for nesting and wildflowers for foraging. It creates little litter.
Chilean Mesquite (Prosopis chilensis) & Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutina)
Because of their breeding, nesting, roosting sites, and insects living within the foliage, bark, and flowers, mesquites attract a lot of birds. The mesquite’s seeds and sweet fleshy pods are eaten by doves, quail, and other birds.
The Chilean Mesquite is semi-evergreen and grows to 30 ft wide by 30 ft high. Its yellow-green flowers bloom from its four to six-inch-long compound, dark green, fine-textured leaves. Numerous pairs of leaflets range from a half-inch to one inch in length. At the base of leaves are a pair of variably dangerous stipular spines that range in length from non-existent to three inches long.
The Velvet Mesquite is deciduous and grows to 25 ft high by 25 ft wide with a shrub-like trunk and compound, gray-green leaves. Its pale yellow, flowers bloom in the spring. Don't plant this near the pool as the yellow flowers will drop. The mature beans can be ground into a sweet flour. This flour tastes sweet all by itself and makes an excellent addition to cookies, pancakes, and cornbread.
Prickly Pear (Opuntia engelmannii)
The prickly pear cactus offers escape cover for birds. One of the least demanding plants, they can go long periods without water and tolerate very hot locations. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum notes the prickly pear is easily identified by its broad, flat, green pads. The white spines are three inches long and can be flat, curved or straight. They also are covered with tiny, barbed hairs known as glochids. Groups of up to six spines emerge from a common center which is scattered around each pad, thus making a nice place to make a bird’s nest. The flowers are yellow and emerge May through June and attract butterflies and other pollinating insects. Ripe fruit, known as “tuna,” are found beginning in July and are identified by their bright red color and are prized by many birds. You may have to elbow out the birds to get to the goods yourself, as prickly pears are edible for humans. Remove the thorns and the prickly pear cactus pads and fruit can be eaten raw or cooked!
Note: Packrats build dens at the base of prickly pears, which protects them from predators. Be vigilant about keeping that area clear of debris, especially if the prickly pear is close to your house or vehicles.
Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata)
Desert marigold’s seeds are eaten by doves, sparrows, and finches. It produces bright yellow individual florets arranged in dense heads making the floret group look like a single flower. The flowers can bloom nearly all year long if watered occasionally during summer. They can grow to be one to two feet tall and two feet across. The flower stalks themselves grow up to 18 inches above gray-green foliage. It is a short-lived perennial, but reseeds itself well and is very drought-tolerant.
Caution: Desert marigolds either fresh or dried, are poisonous to goats and sheep, but not to cattle or horses.
Blue Palo Verde (Cercidium floridium) & Foothill Palo Verde (Parkinsonia microphylla)
The palo verde (Spanish for green stick referring to the tree's green bark) is a great source for food and home wildlife. Hummingbirds, mourning doves, and white wing doves find them an ideal tree to nest and raise their young. Quail roost at night and rabbits munch on fallen litter. It is the primary nurse plant for young saguaro cactus.
The Blue Palo Verde, Arizona’s state tree, can grow to 30 feet tall and 25 feet wide. It has bright green or blue-green bark and seasonal tiny leaves. An abundance of yellow flowers blooms in late March or April.
The Foothill Palo Verde grows to 20 feet tall and has a yellow-green trunk, tiny leaves, and pods that constrict around the seeds. Sometimes called the “little leaf palo verde” or the “yellow palo verde” because of the bright yellow little leaves, the green branches are spine-tipped, stiff, and upright, giving the tree its name.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum explains that humans have used the seeds of the palo verde for hundreds of years. The Tohono O'odham prefer to eat the seeds fresh from the pods. Harvest pods just before monsoon season when the pod is green and the seed tender. Eat them as you would peas or edamame. The flowers can be eaten too.
Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis)
Flowering Willow, Willow-leaved Catalpa, Willowleaf Catalpa, Bow Willow, Flor De Mimbre, Mimbre
The desert willow blooms in clusters from May through September. Water Use It Wisely suggests being thoughtful about the placement of this tree as is deciduous in winter, when it shows papery, pencil-size seed pods (fruits) that attract songbirds.
According to Integrity SaveATree, the desert willow is an open and airy tree with “shaggy” or “brittle" bark. It grows to a height of 15 to 40 feet with pale to bright green foliage that is two to five inches long. The leaves drop in early fall. It produces trumpet-shaped flowers with white corolla and yellow fused anthers, mottled inside, arranged in terminal clusters with petal colors ranging from white to pink to deep lavender, light fragrance. Lightly fragranced and pollinated by carpenter bees, its fruits are long, linear, and messy in the summer. Several long, light brown, oval seeds are encased within a capsule. Hummingbirds and verdins enjoy the nectar from the flowers in late spring and summer. Birds and rodents will eat the seeds in late summer and fall.
Desert Hackberry (Celtis pallida)
Western Hackberry, Netleaf Hackberry, Canyon Hackberry
Considered a tall evergreen shrub, the desert hackberry has thick, leathery leaves and produces juicy orange berries in summer and fall. Hackberry branches grow densely and have thorns. Migratory birds love the food and protection this plant provides. Growing 30 to 60 feet in height with a near to equal spread, its flowers bloom in spring followed by small fruits that are orange-reddish colored and are coveted by birds.
Chuparosa (Justicia californica)
Beloperone, Hummingbird Bush
Hummingbirds flock to the chuparosa. This hearty plant produces masses of red, tubular flowers and grows to six-feet tall and twice as wide even in the shade. A perennial plant that may lose its leaves in times of drought, but the stems will remain green. It blooms red, dull-red, or reddish-orange tubes from fall to winter, and again in spring through early summer. It tolerates poor soil and partial to full sun.
Pink Fairy Duster (Calliandra eriophylla)
Hummingbirds and butterflies love the nectar from this three-foot perennial shrub. Boasting pale pink to deep red feathery flowers that bloom from its evergreen foliage in the spring and fall, fairy dusters require very little pruning to maintain their naturally rounded form. They are drought tolerant and bloom profusely in full sun. They tolerate most soil types and quickly recover if damaged by frost.
Jay Harper's suggestions for additional plants that attract birds in Arizona, below the Mogollon Rim.
Cape Honeysucke Orange
Coral Fountain Canna
Thank you to Integrity SaveATree, a Rosie -Certified Partner, Audubon Arizona, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, This Is Tucson, Southwest Desert Flora, and Water Use It Wisely for their resources that contributed to this article.
Part of what makes living in Arizona so alluring is the abundance of wildlife that our native trees, plants, and cacti attract. Water efficient, maintenance ease, color without the need for multiple bird feeders. John Eisenhower and Sarah Maitland add to the conversation on the trees and plants that can do the job!
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