Best Trees to Plant for Wildlife

Trees support life in many forms. While we as humans are partial to fruit trees (who can resist a fresh juicy peach?), many plants and animals have a wide variety of favorite trees where they get their food source.

Some people are grossed out by the caterpillar hatchings of the summer, as they eat leaves on our trees, take over our lawns, driveways, and can even be found crawling on the dog. But did you know that it takes 6,000 – 9,000 caterpillars to feed one clutch (nest with young) of chickadees. That is a lot of protein, not to mention a very busy mama bird.

In other cultures, people relish the idea of eating certain insects and some believe that eating insects could cure our problem with food insecurity. Um…no thanks, even if you smother it with chocolate. But did someone say Tequila worm?

Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home ranks woody plants based on how many insects or invertebrates they can support from the Lepidoptera family (moths and butterflies make up 50% of all insect herbivores in the U.S.).

Let’s start with a big one so worthy it get’s the only quote on this page.

“The value of oaks for supporting both vertebrate and invertebrate wildlife cannot be overstated.”

–Douglas W. Tallamy

oak, Quercus spp.

Oaks, hickories, walnut, and American beech supply most of the nuts for vertebrate wildlife. Acorns, or oak seeds (which we never call them for some reason) feed deer, raccoons, turkeys, mice, black bears, squirrels, wood ducks, and more. More than 180 birds and mammals use oak acorns as food.

White oak in particular supports more species of butterfly and moth caterpillar than any other tree, at 537 species.

New Year’s Resolution: Plant a white oak this year.

black willow, Salix nigra

Not quite as tasty to as many species as an oak tree or oak seed (acorn), the black willow is nonetheless more seductive in its name. I mean, would you rather be called an old-oak, or a dazzling black willow? Plants and trees in the willow family support 456 Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) species.

Black willow is a good host for wood-boring beetles and also for woodpeckers who feed on beetle larvae. The leaves and twigs are popular food sources for elk and beaver. Willow trees flower in March, creating an early nectar source for pollinators.

Willows are also prized for their fast growth and wide spreading root network that can hold together streambanks and prevent riparian erosion. These trees can even be planted through live staking, cutting a stake from a branch of the tree and staking it in the ground.

black cherry, Prunus serotina

It’s worth noting that the twigs and leaves of black cherry can be poisonous to dogs and other animals.

Some may find the black cherry to be undesirable since they tend to be a favorite for the Eastern tent caterpillar. Eastern tent caterpillars build webs in the crooks of branches that may be seen as unsightly. However, the Eastern tent caterpillar is the main food source for birds including yellow- and black-billed cuckoos, as well as bats. Cherry fruits feed birds in late summer when little else is available to foraging. Fruit from black cherry is popular with thrushes, woodpeckers, sparrows, bluebirds, tanagers (not teenagers), orioles, cedar waxwings, fox, squirrels, chipmunks, mice and black bears!

Plants and trees in the cherry/plum family support 456 Lepidoptera species.

river birch, Betula nigra

Trees in the birch family support 413 Lepidoptera species.

The exfoliating bark of the tree provides habitat for insects, attracting woodpeckers. The seeds and flower buds are popular food for songbirds, small mammals, grouse, and turkeys. Red-throated hummingbirds enjoy the sap from the tree. Deer eat its twigs and leaves.

maple, Acer spp.

Trees in the maple family support 285 Lepidoptera species.

Many birds and small mammals eat maple tree seeds (samaras), and rabbits and deer frequently eat the young shoots and leaves. Cavities in maple trees make good nesting habitat for birds and rodents. Look for species of maple such as red maple, sugar maple (in northern parts of the upstate), and boxelder.

pine, Pinus spp.

Trees in the pine family support 203 Lepidoptera species.

Pine cone seeds feed a variety of birds, mammals, and rodents, including: turkey, grouse quail, red squirrels, fox squirrels, gray squirrels, songbirds, chipmunks, mice, and voles. Pine needles are a favorite meal for many caterpillar species. Year-round foliage and dense cover provide important nesting habitat for birds and small mammals.

Pines predominant to upstate South Carolina include loblolly, Virginia, and shortleaf, among others. Plus, loblollies just sound cool. “That man Sam over there…he is SUCH a loblolly.” “Yeah! I heard that girl! Sam is so cool!”

hickory, Carya spp. 

Trees in the hickory family support 200 Lepidoptera species.

Slightly lower on Tallamy’s list, but worth noting because of their prominence in the upstate, are hickory trees. The upstate habitat is an oak hickory forest. Hickory nuts are calorie-rich and an important winter food source for many animals including turkey, wood duck, bear, foxes, chipmunks, and squirrels. The pignut hickory even gets its name from its food value for pigs!

Other Species of Note

Trees that produce late season fruit are also highly prized by wildlife since they provide a food source when little else is available.

Blackgum, Nyssa sylvatica
Dogwood, Cornus florida
Fringetree, Chionanthis virginicus
Redbud, Cercis canadensis
Hawthorn, Crataegus spp. 

So what are you waiting for? If you want to start a food source for wildlife in your own backyard (or the backyard of a friend), what can be better than planting trees!