Have you ever wondered where the above expression came from, meaning that whatever it refers to is worthless? The American Heritage Dictionary® of Idioms says that the derivation alludes to horse droppings from which birds would extract seeds.
That, of course, is ancient history. Horses are no longer our primary method of conveyance. However, in today’s world, with ever-increasing environmental consciousness, this phrase would be greeted with praise. Thus gardeners and landscape designers are doing their best to incorporate plants that attract and are useful to birds, particularly native plants.
There are several perennials that are bird-friendly, among them Monarda fistulosa (Wild Bergamot), Lobelia cardinalis (Cardinal Flower), Symphyotrichum laevis (Smooth Blue Aster), and Rudbeckia fulgida var.fulgida (Black-Eyed Susan).
Monarda didyma (Beebalm) is the Beebalm that we commonly find in garden centers. The problem is that this species is subject to disfiguring mildew. Disease-resistant cultivars have been introduced and they are better but most still have some mildew. Unfortunately, according to the Chicago Botanic Garden trials, Monarda fistulosa is also subject to powdery mildew. It does have lovely lavender blossoms on strong, four-foot stems and distinctively aromatic foliage. It will grow in all but the wettest of soils and, in fact, will grow better in dry soil than Beebalm.The only Monarda I know of that is mildew-free is M.bradburiana; however, it only blooms for a few weeks in June. Site either in either full sun or light shade. They are a favorite of butterflies, bees and hummingbirds and are hosts for many moths and other pollinators. The stems are sometimes used by Indigo Buntings to build their nests and many birds eat the seeds. Deer tend to leave this very hardy (zones 4-9) plant off their menu because of the strong herbal taste. Be aware that all Monarda spread by underground runners.
Lobelia cardinalis, hardy from zones 5 to 7, is useful in bringing mid to late summer color to our gardens. Its bright red spike of tubular flowers, held well above the dark green, irregularly toothed foliage, can be seen from great distances in early August. The combination of the color red and the tubular aspect of the flowers provide a strong attractant to hummingbirds and butterflies as well as bees. Some flies and moths feed on the leaves. Fortunately, it seems to be relatively impervious to deer and rabbit predation. This lobelia grows two to four feet tall but only two feet in diameter. It prefers moist soil in a site with full sun to partial shade and will disappear within a year or two if it is subjected to dry conditions. Frequently found in nature on stream banks, this is an excellent candidate for plantings near water features.
Symphyotrichum (Aster) laevis is a great source of nectar for migrating monarchs and other late season butterflies. Also, like most asters, late in autumn, birds will eat the seeds. Hardy in zones 3-8, the blue, daisy-like flower clusters, that bloom in the fall, are held above the foliage on three to four foot arching stems. Pinching in June for denser habit and shorter stems will delay bloom by two weeks. If you forget to pinch, you will probably need to stake this perennial. An excellent selection is ‘Bluebird’, introduced by the Mt.Cuba Center. Grow in full sun in average to dry soil. When young, this aster will be eaten by white-tailed deer but ‘Bluebird’ is supposedly deer-resistant.
Rudbeckia fulgida var.fulgida, a prolific bloomer and seeder, has never been one of my favored perennials for designs because the orangy-yellow color does not play well with other colors and the seedlings tend to take over. However, in a wild or prairie garden, mixed with broad sweeps of ornamental grasses, it is a natural. Smaller and finer than Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’, with ten weeks of flowers from July into October, it will still be blooming long after ‘Goldsturm’ is brown. It has shiny, deep green foliage and is an excellent cut flower. This Rudbeckia provides late summer nectar for butterflies and seeds in the winter for birds. Hardy in zones 5-7, it will grow twenty-four to thirty inches high. Grow in full sun and well-drained, average to dry soil; it will be drought tolerant once established.
There are many other perennials as well as trees and shrubs that provide nectar, seed, or shelter for birds. How many are in your landscape?