Top 10 Bird Plants

The following article covers a popular talk by Charles Botha, at the 2014 Botanical Society Coastal Branch Indigenous Plant Fair.

N0 10 - Halleria lucida (Tree Fuchsia) 15 bird species

This marvelous tree was already cherished in England at the time of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, but it has yet to be discovered by many South African gardeners. Sometimes jokingly referred to as “Hilarious Lucy,” Halleria lucida grows in sun or shade and can tolerate modest frost. It is mostly semi-deciduous. Although larger under forest conditions, it is usually a shrub or small tree, ideal for smaller gardens. Often multi-stemmed, with dense, drooping foliage, it can also be used as a screen.

The leaves are nibbled by the larvae of at least a dozen moth species. Orange to dark red, curved, tubular flowers hang in dense bunches on the trunk and woody branches. They are so full of nectar that some Zulu speakers refer to them as “birds’ beer.” Sunbirds, white-eyes, and weavers are among the constant stream of visitors. Next, it’s the turn of fruit-eaters, with turacos sometimes loudly leading the pack. Even thrushes, more likely to be seen pulling earthworms out of the ground, feast on fallen fruit, while other birds simply feed on the insects attracted to the bounty. On top of all these advantages, such birds as woodpeckers work their way up and down the flaky bark, looking for insects and other creatures that live there.

N0 9 - Strelitzia nicolai 17 bird species

This lovely evergreen plant gets its species name from Emperor Nicholas І of Russia, who cultivated it in the Imperial Gardens in St. Petersburg in the 19th century. Despite the alternative common name of Wild Banana, it doesn’t bear such fruit, but its large leaves resemble those of a banana plant. Popular with landscapers for creating a tropical atmosphere, it is also a great magnet for wildlife. For example, its distribution area coincides with that of the Strelitzia Nightfighter butterfly, which breeds on it. A multitude of other little creatures, including tree frogs, live in the axils of the leaves, and some birds are forever searching here for a meal. The unfurling leaves are a favourite daytime roosting place for the tiny Banana Bat, which feeds on small flying insects. The large, striking, spiky, blue and white flowers are custom built “fly in nectar restaurants” for birds, with an appropriately placed platform to ensure the right position for pollination. Later the flowers are replaced by woody capsules, containing black seeds, with little, woolly, orange “caps.” These are readily gobbled up by bulbuls, barbets, and starlings. Even Green Wood-Hoopoes, which one would expect to survive on insects, and seed-eaters like Red-eyed Doves have been found to eat these hard seeds. Strelitzia nicolai will grow in sun or shade and can become very tall. It also spreads to form a large clump as new shoots grow from the base, so is not suitable on top of retaining walls, where it could cause damage.

N0 8 - Panicum spp. 20 bird species

Because grass seed is so nutritious, lots of animals depend on it, and it provides food for a large number of birds, including such garden specials as twinspots. Mannikins, waxbills, weavers, whydahs, doves and other seed-eaters can all easily be attracted to your garden without feeding trays. Grass seeds are even important in the diet of some birds that are predominantly insect-eaters, like many lark species. In addition, birds benefit from the food source provided by the large variety of butterfly species that depend on grass plants to feed their caterpillars. Some birds may also use components like the fluffy flower heads for nest building while many species make their nests in grass.

N0 7 - Senegalia & Vachellia (= Acacia) spp. 23 bird species

Vachellia karroo - Image by Andrea Abbott

The indigenous members of the genus Acacia are real multipurpose bird plants. Not only are their flowers frequented by many birds but the buds and seeds and even the leaves, are eaten by a wide variety. These trees also feed many insects, contributing to the happy hunting ground for birds. The pick of the bunch here is the Sweet Thorn, Vachellia karroo, which serves as a larval food-plant for 15 butterfly and an astounding 90 moth species.

N0 6 - Kiggelaria africana (Wild-peach) 24 bird species

Fruit capsule - note the insect on top.

This small to medium-sized, semi-deciduous, frost-hardy tree is often multi-stemmed, and so can also be useful as a screen or windbreak or in a wildlife-friendly thicket. The small flowers are yellowish and the fruits, borne on female trees, are round, woody capsules. When these open, the exposed black seeds, covered in a bright red-orange, sticky coating, are snapped up by a range of birds including African Olive-Pigeons, Streaky-headed Seedeaters, and the very special Bush Blackcap. Southern Grey-headed Sparrows, Olive Thrushes, and even Lemon Doves look for seeds on the ground below. Even if you have a male tree, you will still get bird visitors such as cuckoos, because of all the insect life. That includes the caterpillars of two butterfly species. One of them, the Garden Acraea, is a common garden visitor. There is no need to worry about the damage the larvae cause. Although it looks devastating, the plant quickly recovers and subsequently thrives. Once these gluttonous larvae have finished with your tree, they turn into pupae that will hang in all sorts of conspicuous places such as tree trunks, rocks and even on walls. But don’t be too quick to remove these, as you will want to enjoy the butterflies again next season!

N0 5 - Trema orientalis (Pigeonwood) 25 bird species

Image: Green Wood-hoopoes dig for insects in the bark of a Trema orientalis