Best native trees for wildlife

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Wildlife makes use of trees from the very top to the bottom. Alive or dead, standing or fallen, they’re places for nesting, resting, shelter, and food. It’s no wonder, then, that trees are valuable in a backyard wildlife habitat (and everywhere else). Native trees are best because they’re adapted to local environments and require less care.

The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now. — Chinese proverb

The food produced by a tree is called its mast. The mast of a walnut tree, for example, is walnuts, and that of a pear tree is pears. In addition to fruits and nuts, the mast of some trees is seeds, which are eaten by numerous species. Mast feeds animals in summer, fattens them up in the fall, and helps them survive through winter. The importance of mast to wild animals (and humans, too) can’t be overstated.

Hard-shelled mast

Nuts are a hard-shelled mast. They’re high in protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Nut-producing trees can be “messy” because fallen nuts litter the ground. But nuts are long-lasting and particularly valuable to squirrels, chipmunks, and other animals in the winter when other food sources are in short supply.

Soft mast

Trees that produce soft mast, like berries, provide moisture, sugar, carbohydrates, and vitamins to wildlife. Soft mast is fleshy and perishable. Some of these trees hold their fruit through the winter and become “last-resort” sources when almost everything else has been eaten. You can extend berry season by planting several different species that produce at different times. Soft mast trees draw large flocks of songbirds and other animals as their fruit ripens. Ground-feeding birds and other critters, including butterflies, will consume or sip juices from fallen, rotting fruit.

The trees listed here are proven to be valuable for nesting, resting, shelter, and their mast. Most are deciduous, meaning they drop their leaves in winter, but offer protection the rest of the year. Try to include some evergreens, such as pines, junipers or spruce, in your landscape, too—they provide year-round cover and mast in the form of seeds or berries.

SMALL NATIVE TREES

NameSome Native VarietiesLatin Name
AlderSpeckled, Tag, BlackAlnus spp.
BeechAmericanFrogs grandifolia
Blackhawaka Blackhaw Viburnum and Sweet HawViburnum prunifolium
BlueberryHighbushVaccinium corymbosum
BuckeyeYellow, Western, PaintedAesculus spp.
CherryPin, Fire, Carolina Laurel, ChokecherryPrunus spp.
CranberryHighbushViburnum trilobum
Desert WillowChilopsis linearis
DogweedFlowering, SilkyCornus spp.
ElderberryAmerican, RedSambucus canadensis
Fringe TreeHalesia carolina
HawthornCockspur, Black, Downy, WashingtonCrataegus spp.
HazelnutAmericanCorylus americana
HollyYaupon, Winterberry, MountainIlex spp.
MulberryRed, White, RussianMorus spp.
OakBlack Jack, PostQuercus spp.
PawpawAsimina triloba
PersimmonDiospyros virginiana
PlumBig Tree, WildPrunus mexicana
RedbudEasternCercis Canadensis
ServiceberryDowny, Allegheny, WesternAmelanchier spp.
SumacStaghorn, Flameleaf, SmoothRhus spp.
WillowPeach-leaved, Sandbar, YellowSalix spp.

LARGE NATIVE TREES

NAMENATIVE VARIETIESLATIN NAME
WillowBlack, YellowSalix spp.
WalnutBlackJuglans nigra
Pine (evergreen)Shortleaf, White, Loblolly, Jack, Eastern WhitePincea spp.
OakBur, Chinkapin, Pin, English, Red. WillowQuercus spp.
MulberryRedMorus rubra
MapleRed, Sugar, MountainAcer spp.
MagnoliaSweet Bay, CucumberMagnolia spp.
Juniper (evergreen)Eastern Red Cedar, Rocky MountainJuniperus spp.
HickoryPignut, Shagbark, Mockernut, BitternutCarya spp.
HackberryNorthernCeltis occidentalis
CherryWild BlackPrunus serotina
Boxelderaka Boxelder Maple, Maple AshAcer negundo
BuckeyeYellow, Red, Painted, OhioAesculus spp.
Blackgumaka Tupelo, Black TupeloNyssa sylvatica
BirchPaper, River, YellowBettula spp.
BeechAmericanFagus grandiflora
BasswoodAmerican, WhiteTilia spp.
AshEuropean Mountain, GreenFraxinus spp.
AlderRedAlnus rubra

Interactive USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map   

For more information on specific trees, check out the Arbor Day Foundation.

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