Indigenous plants serve several functions in the life of birds. In addition to providing perches, plants supply food in the form of nectar, fruit or by attracting other creatures such as flying insects, lizards, spiders and scorpions. They also offer breeding birds shelter for nest sites and/or nesting material.
Not only are garden plants useful to birds, but they also enhance our own living space. In the coming issues, I’ll highlight some magnificent indigenous plants that can be included in most gardens countrywide to attract more birdlife and enhance biodiversity in our region.
In this issue, we feature a collection of plants that are stand-out species in a forest-themed garden.
Sunbird bush (Metarungia longistrobus)
This rather unusual plant truly lives up to its common name. It produces orange, lobster-like tubular flowers from late summer through autumn and the flowers are irresistible to sunbirds, even if the plant is positioned close to moderate human activity.
This shrub thrives in semi-shade and will benefit from being pruned back after flowering to encourage a dense form. It does well in semi-shade on a forest margin. As a medium-sized shrub (about 2.5 metres tall and two metres wide), the sunbird bush is fast-growing and may start flowering within a year of being planted.
Wild Peach (Kiggelaria africana)
The wild peach is a lovely evergreen tree that in nature is found in forests and bushveld. It is a low-branching tree that can serve as a windbreak or screening element for a medium-sized garden.
It produces tiny, bell-shaped flowers with male and female flowers borne on separate trees. The female flowers develop into round, greenish-yellow fruits that split to reveal bright orange-red centres. The fruit is enjoyed by Red-eyed Doves, Dark-capped Bulbuls, Cape Robin-chats, mousebirds and white-eyes.
The wild peach is the larval host plant of the garden acraea Acraea horta butterfly, and the resultant caterpillars will attract cuckoos, which feed on them.
This tree has a non-aggressive root system and reaches an average height of seven metres in favourable conditions. It is frost hardy and can tolerate a variety of climates.
Tree fuchsia (Halleria lucida)
The bushy, evergreen tree fuchsia is a renowned wildlife magnet as its dense foliage provides a hiding place for hunting and feeding birds. It produces nectar-rich, orange-red tubular flowers that hang on short stalks from the main stems and are hidden by the foliage, enticing nectar-feeding species such as sunbirds.
The tree fuchsia varies in size depending on the environment. It can remain a small shrub of two metres or grow into a tree of six metres or more in warmer climes. The plant’s dense, bright green foliage makes it useful to grow for screening and it can be trimmed into a hedge. It grows in sun or shade and has a long flowering period (April to December). It produces green berries that ripen to black and attract numerous fruit-eating birds.
Some excellent companion plants to use beneath the tree fuchsia include Chlorophytum comosum (hen and chickens), Scadoxus puniceus (paintbrush) and Veltheimia bracteata (forest lily).
Large-leaved Dragon Tree (Dracaena aletriformis)
This beautiful forest plant gives the garden a lovely tropical feel with its long, dark-green, leathery leaves. In summer it bears tiny white, strongly-scented flowers on an upright stalk. These are followed by orange-red berries that are favoured by birds such as bulbuls. The older leaves dry and remain on the plant, drooping against the trunk and providing hiding spots for small lizards, spiders and other insects, which in turn attract birds that prey on them. Small birds like robins may sometimes nest in the leaf axils.
The large-leaved dragon tree prefers slightly warmer environments but can withstand Highveld winters if planted in a protected position. It must be planted in shade and can be used as a single focal point or in a grouping, two metres apart.
This fast-growing species needs well-drained, compost-enriched soil and will benefit from plenty of leaf litter to simulate its natural forest environment.
Spurflower (Plectranthus species)
There are numerous indigenous Plectranthus species that vary in height from 0.2 to 2.5 metres. All make ideal garden subjects and most thrive in shade with the addition of plenty of compost and a leaf-litter mulch. The flowers range in colour but are mainly in shades of white, pink and purple.
Plectranthus plants attract numerous insects, which in turn draw insectivorous birds to the garden.
Foxtail Fern (Asparagus densiflorus)
This delicate-looking evergreen groundcover is a wonderful addition to the forest understorey. It has fine, bright green foliage and produces tiny white flowers that are followed by bright red berries beloved by fruit-eating birds. Some bird species may use the plant in the construction of their nests, as the fronds have tiny hooks that are useful for securing the structures.
The foxtail fern can be planted as a single specimen or in masses under trees