Kyle N. Cheesborough
During the fall, as we anticipate the changing colors of deciduous leaves, many of Missouri’s native trees and shrubs are bearing fruit – often under the cover of the soon-to-be-fallen foliage. Much of this fruit will be consumed by migrating birds, in dire need of fuel for the long trip south. Resident birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians also feed on the cornucopia of native fruits developing at this time of year. Because we have replaced so many of our native trees and shrubs with exotic species deemed more ‘appropriate’ for urban settings, the few palatable fruiting plants left become a battleground, with the fruit going to the quickest or strongest, while others are left desperately searching for nourishment. Home gardeners in St. Louis, a city located along the Mississippi Flyway (a major migratory path for birds and other animals), can aid in the quest for sustenance by planting some of the native trees and shrubs we will discuss. Some are common to the everyday gardener, while others are not so well known. Some are aggressive and should be planted in a suitable site, and others can serve as replacements for exotic plants that are weedy, invasive, or lack accessible and/or edible fruit in fall and winter.
It is not unusual to see a street, park, or garden with a few crabapples, typically these are non-native cultivars, often grafted onto apple tree rootstock. An excellent substitute tree is the Sargent crabapple (Malus sargentii). The Sargent crabapple features scarlet fruit in the fall, about 1” in diameter, and is irresistible to birds. Often growing more horizontally than vertically, pruning and training can grow Malus sargentii into a small specimen tree.
Two other substitutes for an oft-planted exotic are the eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) and strawberry bush (Euonymus americanus), both being able to replace the burning bush (Euonymus alatus). The eastern wahoo is the larger of the two native Euonymus, growing to 15’ in height and spread, but the strawberry bush will only grow to 6’ tall and wide. Both exhibit superb fall color, with leaves changing to a pink or strawberry-red before dropping. These two native Euonymus sport spectacular fruit in fall, with warty outer shells that split to reveal bright red berries, sought after by all manner of wildlife.
The American hazelnut (Corylus americana) provides an abundance of food, shelter, and cover to wildlife in Missouri. The fall ripening hazelnuts are fed on by squirrels, mice, ring-necked pheasant, bobwhite quail, wild turkey, ruffed grouse, red-bellied woodpecker, and chipmunks. The stems are a source of food and building material for beavers, and the dense, thick branches offer excellent cover and nesting sites for songbirds.
In addition to the numerous clusters of spring flowers, the nannyberry bush (Viburnum lentago) is a Missouri native shrub with an upright habit that features deep purple-to-black berries in the fall. Often times these beautiful berries develop as the wonderful array of colors begin to show on the fall foliage of nannyberry. Another invaluable plant, Viburnum lentago provides food for countless species of birds, and nesting sites for the white-eyed vireo, indigo bunting, and prairie warbler, and red fox frequent the shrub for a quick snack.
Rosehips, purported to have high concentrations of vitamin C, are beautiful fruits left behind after the equally as gorgeous blooms have been pollinated and subsequently dropped from the rose plant. Many of our garden roses will begin to form rosehips after blooming, but not all exotic species develop fully in Missouri, and some simply turn brown and fall from the shrub. With the prairie rose (Rosa carolina), brilliant-red rosehips develop in fall, and provide forage for many gamebirds and small mammals, like bobwhite quail, rabbit, prairie chicken, skunk, and elk.
A fall fruiting plant enjoyed by myriad wildlife and humans alike, the maypop (Passiflora incarnata) – or purple passionflower – ripens its egg-shaped fruit in mid-to-late fall. The globular fruit hanging from the maypop vine shows a yellow-green color when ready, and will ‘pop’ with a little force – revealing the plethora of pulpy seed inside. The pulp is edible to humans, and is very sweet when ripe. It should be noted that both the prairie rose and maypop can be aggressive, so the gardener would be wise to site these plants in an area where they can spread and sprawl freely, or be easily maintained.
The final plant on this list is the oak, unmatched for its benefit to wildlife in Missouri and North America in general. Numerous insects feed on the foliage, the dense crowns of oaks provide excellent habitat for nesting wildlife, and the acorns are nutritious food for endless numbers of wild animals. For the gardener with a little extra room, plant an oak!
compiled by Cara L. Crocker