Plant Trees and Shrubs This Fall to Support Pollinators Year-round

Plant Trees and Shrubs This Fall to Support Pollinators Year-round

Pipevine swallowtail

By Phyllis Styles | Photos by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards

Many gardeners take autumn’s shorter days and cooler nights as signs that the planting season has ended. On the contrary, these are optimal conditions for planting many shrubs and trees that will support the pollinators in our region.

“Native trees and shrubs are well adapted to our climate and soil and don’t need the babying that some exotic species do,” says Bill Jones, owner of Carolina Native Nursery in Burnsville. “Carolina Native showcases many species that our biologically rich region is so famous for, like flame azaleas and a variety of rhododendrons, which are favorites of butterflies and migrating hummingbirds.”

Pollinator gardening considers the year-round needs of a wide variety of pollinators. One example of a tree that supports pollinators is the native red maple (Acer rubrum). Red maples bloom early in the spring and provide the pollen that feeds developing larval honeybees.

Plant Trees and Shrubs This Fall to Support Pollinators Year-round

Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar.

Many moths and butterflies will only lay eggs on specific plant species. One example is the tiger swallowtail butterfly, which uses sweetbay magnolias and tulip poplars as larval hosts. In the book Bringing Nature Home, Dr. Doug Tallamy explains that planting a single native oak tree can support hundreds of species of moths and butterflies, all of which use oak leaves as a food source when they are caterpillars. Many of those moth and butterfly larvae become essential baby food for about 90 percent of bird species.

Planting certain trees and shrubs in your garden can even protect pollinators from the animals that like to eat them. Some plants have protective toxins that are absorbed by moth and butterfly caterpillars when they eat the leaves. Predators avoid these insects because of the transferred toxicity.

While the spicebush plant does not carry these toxins, it does act as a larval host for spicebush butterflies, which mimic the appearance of the pipevine swallowtail to fool predators into thinking they are toxic too. Pipevine, the larval host plant for pipevine swallowtails, contains toxic aristolochic acid, which is also toxic to humans. Spicebushes are colorful, ornamental plants with yellow flowers in the spring, yellow leaves in the fall and red berries that feed the birds.

The addition of a mixed shrub bed, small trees and perennial plants will welcome all types of wildlife into your yard. Planting silky dogwood (Cornus amomum), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and clethra will attract bees and butterflies to your garden. Not only does sumac (Rhus copallinum) add brilliant red color to a fall garden, but it also helps bees make honey and produces red berries that act as emergency winter food for about 300 species of songbirds.

“We can feed pollinators, songbirds and ourselves,” says Meghan Baker, an agriculture extension agent at the Buncombe County Center. “The serviceberry tree and blueberry bushes are natives that provide our native bees with nectar and pollen and produce yummy berries for birds and humans to eat.”

Helpful Hints

Our imperiled pollinators appreciate it when:

  • You choose native species that were here before 1492: they co-adapted with our thousands of native pollinators
  • You purchase plants that were raised without the use of systemic neonicotinoid insecticides that poison the leaves and flowers (nectar and pollen)
  • Your yard includes something blooming throughout the growing season

For more information and an extensive list of local trees and shrubs that support pollinators, visit

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