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Plants & Gardens Blog

A Plant Palette for Hungry Birds

The theme of the Annual Border this year is plants for the birds. These annuals were chosen specifically for their abundance of food in the form of seeds, fruit, and insect pollinators.

As Wayken Shaw, gardener for the Lily Pool Terrace and border gardens as well as Magnolia Plaza, explains, “Birds can be attracted to plants for a number of reasons. One main reason is as a food source. They want their nectar. They want their fruit. They want their seeds. They want the insects that happen to also want food from that plant.”

A lush planting bed of colorful flowers surrounds a concrete bench.
The Annual Border lush with blooms in mid-summer. Photo by Michael Stewart.

A garden for wildlife can also be a beautiful garden. The Annual Border is planted in the style of an English cottage garden. Instead of a geometric design, the plants have been placed in drifts throughout the border. Towering broom corn and sunflowers at the back are interspersed with lower plants in front such as nasturtiums, gazanias, and petunias. Succession has been planned into the design—cosmos and marigolds are ready to take over when shorter-lasting plants like zinnias are finished blooming.

Located on the opposite side of Lily Pool Terrace, the Perennial Border does its part for the birds with multiseason benefits from native plants like coneflowers that attract important pollinator insects, and trees and shrubs like crape-myrtle and smoke bush that provide sheltered places to nest.

Here’s a sampling of the plants you’ll find in the Annual Border this year, all suited for a bird’s palate. Often a single plant has multiple characteristics that attract birds—producing seeds as food, attracting insects with sugar-rich nectar, and boasting bright, colorful flowers. Consider some of these plants for your own garden—whether a small bed or a container display—and curate your own plant menu for hungry birds.

PLANTS FOR HUNGRY BIRDS

Seed Buffet

Seeds like sorghum and millet provide much-needed nutrients. High in protein and carbohydrates, they serve as fuel for birds, especially during the fall migration season as they journey south. This is no accident—the times when many plants are fruiting and producing seeds coincide with peak migration seasons.

Broom Corn
Sorghum

A broom-shaped bloom of fibrous strands of seeds grows atop a green stalk.
Sorghum (broom corn) in the Annual Border. Photo by Michael Stewart.

Millet
Setaria italica

Tiny brown seeds cluster in a cone-shape at the tip of a thin green stem.
Setaria italica ‘Highland Bronze’ (millet) in the Annual Border. Photo by Michael Stewart.

Plains Coreopsis
Coreopsis tinctoria

A cluster of deep red daisy-like flowers bloom alongside small buds.
Coreopsis tinctoria ‘Mahogany Midget’ (plains coreopsis) in the Annual Border. Photo by Michael Stewart.

Globe Amaranth
Gomphrena haageana

An orange-red egg-shaped flower blooms atop a fuzzy green stem.
Gomphrena haageana ‘Qis Orange’ (globe amaranth) in the Annual Border. Photo by Michael Stewart.

Marigold
Tagetes erecta

A flower with red petals edged in orange blooms at the tip of a green stem.
Tagetes ‘Burning Embers’ (marigold) in the Annual Border. Photo by Michael Stewart.

Sunflower
Helianthus annuus

A large flower with yellow petals and a center of brown disc flowers blooms alongside green leaves.
Helianthus annuus (sunflower) in the Annual Border. Photo by Michael Stewart.

Insect Magnets

Both nectar and pollen offer the energy and nutrients that insects need. In turn, insects like butterflies, bees, and moths are an important source of food for birds. You’ll also notice many of these nectar-rich plants, such as sage and nasturtium, have funnel-like or tubular flowers that attract ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Petunia
Petunia

A velvety black funnel-shaped flower blooms alongside fuzzy foliage.
Petunia BLACK VELVET (‘Balpevac’) (petunia) in the Annual Border. Photo by Michael Stewart.

Nasturtium
Tropaeolum

A bright orange funnel-shaped flower blooms alongside disc-shaped leaves.
Tropaeolum ‘Tall Single Scarlet’ (nasturtium) in the Annual Border. Photo by Michael Stewart.

Zinnia
Zinnia elegans

A flower with bright red petals and center ring of tiny yellow florets blooms alongside green foliage.
Zinnia elegans ‘Gigantica Deep Red’ (zinnia) in the Annual Border. Photo by Michael Stewart.

Cornflower
Centaurea cyanus

A blue wheel-shaped flower with small florets blooms at the tip of a thin green stem.
Centaurea cyanus ‘Blue Boy’ (cornflower) in the Annual Border. Photo by Michael Stewart.

Sage
Salvia

Tubular magenta flowers bloom along a purple-green spire.
Salvia ‘Amante’ (sage) in the Annual Border. Photo by Michael Stewart.

Blanket Flower
Gaillardia pulchella

A round head of small red-orange tubular flowers blossoms alongside green foliage.
Gaillardia pulchella ‘Sundance Bicolor’ (blanket flower) in the Annual Border. Photo by Michael Stewart.

Hyssop
Agastache

Clusters of orange tubular flowers with long purple stamen blossom along a stalk.
Agastache ‘Kudos Mandarin’ (hyssop) in the Annual Border. Photo by Michael Stewart.

Meet gardener Wayken Shaw and join tours of the Lily Pool Terrace and Annual Border gardens in August during Garden After Hours: Summer Tuesdays.

Be sure to check out For the Birds, a multidisciplinary exhibition and program series inspired by the Garden’s resident birds, as well as “For the Birds: The Birdsong Project,” a multialbum set of original recordings celebrating birds by 200-plus artists, compiled by Randall Poster. Join in on birding tours and events and explore our other bird-themed gardens. Find more information at bbg.org/forthebirds.

Kathryn Tam is a former editor of Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s digital editorial content.

    Discussion

  • Riley Scott June 28, 2022

    Love your article. Been planning a backyard bird friendly landscape. Your story helped me with info. Thank you!

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Image, top of page: Michael Stewart