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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

Ideal for the impatient gardener, this is one of our fastest-growing trees. Happiest in sun, it is usually small to medium-sized, but can be larger in the forest, or can be shrubby in dry, colder conditions. The first fruits ripen while the last of the small, greenish, bee-pollinated flowers are still on the tree. You may seldom see the fruit turning black because canaries, tinkerbirds, white-eyes and hordes of other birds will be wiping them out early in the morning while you are either cursing your alarm clock or listening to the happy chirping outside. These little fruit titbits are even palatable to nectar-eaters such as Olive Sunbirds.

There will also be plenty of edible insects for birds to pick off, as two moth and 12 butterfly species use this plant to feed their caterpillars. In addition, when the little yellowish-grey Celtis Leaf Beetles are around defoliating the tree, you are almost guaranteed a visit from cuckoos. Sometimes, with their leaves looking like lacework, these trees almost resemble skeletons, but it appears that the more the tree is eaten, the faster it grows, and the more birds it attracts. Birds like barbets and woodpeckers make nest holes in the old soft wood, while Black-bellied Starlings and Agamas use natural cavities, which are created when older trunks become hollow. Because the prolific little fruits are so popular with local wildlife, small plants come up everywhere as seeds germinate. So if you don’t pull up everything that comes up naturally in your garden, you may find some specimens already growing there, planted by courtesy of your garden birds.


N0 4 - Searsia species (previously known as Rhus spp.) 28 bird species

Image: Searsia crenata - Dune Crowberry (By Abu Shawka via Wiki Commons)

Many tree spotters worked hard to become familiar with at least some of the nearly 70 South African species of Rhus[if supportFields]><i style='mso-bidi-font-style: normal'><span lang=EN-GB style='font-size:12.0pt;line-height:115%;font-family: "Calibri","sans-serif";mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;mso-hansi-theme-font: minor-latin;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"'><span style='mso-element: field-begin'></span></span></i><span lang=EN-GB style='font-size:12.0pt; line-height:115%;font-family:"Calibri","sans-serif";mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"'> XE &quot;<i style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'>Rhus </i>species&quot; </span><![endif][if supportFields]><i style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'><span lang=EN-GB style='font-size:12.0pt; line-height:115%;font-family:"Calibri","sans-serif";mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"'><span style='mso-element:field-end'></span></span></i><![endif] but, just to keep them on their toes, the botanists have now placed all these in the genus Searsia. The leaves, which have a slight scent when crushed, are almost always trifoliolate, meaning that each one is made up of three leaflets. The fruits of some species are edible, and members of this genus are generally quite drought resistant. Usually, only the female trees have fruit. Whether you use the old or new name, these plants will continue to bring nature into your garden, and the larvae of the beautiful, blue-green Common Metallic Longhorn Beetle will still bore into their stems. The flowers are a magnet for insects, and the fruits are very popular with lots of birds, ranging from doves to turacos. On the whole, these are shrubby framework plants, which are good in wildlife-friendly thickets and also make excellent hedges, screens, and windbreaks.


N0 3 - Erythrina spp. 30 bird species

These deciduous shrubs and trees are among our best known indigenous plants because of their spectacular spikes of red flowers. Visiting Scarlet-chested and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds make a spectacular show as their brilliant chests match the flowers. Besides sunbirds, many others, such as canaries, orioles, starlings and weavers, join the feast.

The flowers mature in sequence up the spike, so that a fresh supply of nectar is always provided. They are designed to be pollinated by birds and, interestingly, different species of Erythrina are pollinated by different bird species. The flowers are often eaten whole by Vervet Monkeys but, because flowering is so prolific, there is minimal impact on seed production. The knobbly pods become blackish and dry, splitting to reveal hard, shiny, red seeds, which are often referred to as lucky beans and are used for necklaces and other crafts. Caterpillars, including those of no less than ten moth species, munch the leaves and so become welcome meals for insect-eaters. As the wood is susceptible to wood-boring insects, the trees are favourite haunts of Green Wood-Hoopoes and woodpeckers. They may even become resident in your garden because the soft, pulpy wood makes it an ideal neighbourhood for hole-nesting birds. The stems, and in some species the leaves, are covered with thorns, not unlike those on rose bushes, and sometimes strange bumps develop on the leaves. These are caused by tiny little flying insects called psyllids. The immatures live in the little “pits” on the underside of the bumps but will not harm the tree.


N0 2 - Aloe spp. 45 bird species

When it comes to attracting nectar-eating birds, nothing compares even remotely to aloes as far as the number of species recorded. And if the seed-eaters that frequently obtain meals from these plants are included, the various Aloe species collectively feed about 80 bird species across the country. That places them 1st in the country but 2nd in KZN with 45.

Of course, the reason is that, as so many different types of aloes are found in various parts of the country, the number of bird species in any particular geographical area would not reach such an astronomical total.


N0 1 - Ficus spp. (Wild fig trees) 50 bird species

Image: Green Pigeon in Ficus sur (Charles Botha)

On top of the popularity spectrum in KZN are our wild figs, Ficus species. This makes these handsome trees, without a doubt, the crème de la crème of the bird gardener’s choice.

Once the figs are ripe, virtually every bird species in the neighbourhood, not to mention the fruit bats, will visit your garden. A tree laden with wild figs can attract such specials as African Green-Pigeons, which we have had visiting our fig tree right on the Berea, in Durban.

Even Black-backed Puffbacks and other insect-eaters can relish a change of diet. Fallen figs attract further life, including robin-chats and thrushes, which feast on insects attracted to the rotting material. Buff-spotted Flufftails have been among the many visitors beneath the fig tree in our small Durban garden, close to the city centre. Figs are not actually fruits, but hollow, fleshy receptacles that contain tiny flowers pollinated by specialised little wasps. Many bird species, including swallows, feed on these small wasps. Each type of fig has its own species of pollinating wasp. But if your particular species of fig is planted outside its natural distribution area, you will lose out on these wasps because they will not come to your fig tree. That means that you will also lose out on the birds that eat them. So make sure you get a fig that belongs in your area! Fig trees provide larval food for many moth species and also a few butterfly species, including the beautiful Common Fig-tree Blue. The larvae of this butterfly pupate under the flaking bark and, together with other insects that bore into the bark of dead branches, provide meals for woodpeckers. These birds also like to make nest holes in the soft, dead branches, while these trees are popular nesting places for big birds like African Goshawks and Hadedas.


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