Some Great Plants for Attracting Birds in Central North Carolina

by Will Cook

Birds require food, shelter, and water just as humans do. If you want to see more birds in your yard, try to provide all three. In addition to the suggestions below, be sure to put up a few birdhouses to help out the cavity nesters, consider leaving dead trees and stumps for woodpecker food, and provide water. Water can be as simple as a traditional concrete bird bath on a pedestal or as complex as a water feature with recirculating pumps and waterfalls. The water should be shallow, else the birds might not be able to use it.

Notes: B = Also great for butterflies, N = Native to North Carolina, = Best of the best

Food and cover plants

Evergreen trees and shrubs

  • Chamaecyparis thyoides - Atlantic White-Cedar. This uncommon native to the Coastal Plain provides dense shelter for birds and also is the sole host plant for the rare Hessel's Hairstreak butterfly. It is becoming easier to find as horticulturists look for alternatives to Leyland Cypress. Best in moist spots. Notes: B,N
  • Ilex spp. - Holly. Birds love the dense cover and fruits that hollies provide. Yaupon (I. vomitoria) is an evergreen holly with small non-prickly leaves, often used for screening. The smaller black-fruited Inkberry (I. glabra) is also highly recommended and a great alternative to the overplanted Japanese Holly (I. crenata) (the dull ball-bushes stuck under windows). American Holly (I. opaca) is the great familiar slow-growing tree with prickly leaves and red fruits. The overplanted and weedy Chinese Holly (I. cornuta) is adored by birds, but try a native holly instead. There are also many great deciduous hollies to choose from (see below). Only female hollies bear fruit, but be sure to plant a male for pollination. Notes: B,(N) (some species are native)
  • Juniperus virginiana - Eastern Redcedar. Plant our native juniper instead of the overplanted Leyland Cypress. Birds love it and it doesn't get huge like the Leyland does. Cedar Waxwings were named for their love of it. It provides food and dense cover for many species - a favorite of wintering hummingbirds. It's also the host plant for the Juniper Hairstreak, a pretty little mint-green butterfly. Excellent habitat for wintering Saw-whet Owls. Best in drier, less acidic spots. There are many great cultivars, but they're difficult to find at garden centers -- you could just transplant seedlings that probably are sprouting in your yard (courtesy of birds). Notes: B,N,
  • Morella cerifera - Wax Myrtle. Evergreen with aromatic leaves, much loved by Myrtle Warblers, which bear its name, and any other bird needing shelter. Often used for screening and can be clipped as a hedge. Tolerates a wide variety of conditions, though it's best in moist areas. Formerly known as Myrica cerifera. The smaller Southern Bayberry (Morella caroliniensis) is also worth investigating. Notes: N
  • Pinus spp. - Pine. Need pine trees for Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers. The native Loblolly Pine (P. taeda) and Longleaf Pine (P. palustris) are the best for most areas in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain. If you have a poor dry site where nothing else will grow, try Virginia Pine (P. virginiana). Notes: B,N
  • Prunus caroliniana - Carolina Laurelcherry. The fruits of this native small tree are loved by birds. Not as weedy as the deciduous Black Cherry (P. serotina), though you will get some seedlings sprouting up. Notes: B,N

Deciduous trees and shrubs

  • Acer spp. - Maple. The native Red Maple (A. rubrum) is very popular now as a street and yard tree. The red flowers in February are a delicacy particularly attractive to winter finches. Other native species worth considering are the medium-small Southern Sugar Maple (A. barbatum) and the small Chalk Maple (A. leucoderme). Avoid the messy Silver Maple (A. saccharinum). Notes: N
  • Betula nigra - River Birch. Native small to large tree with peeling bark that's very popular with both birds and landscapers. Notes: N
  • Celtis spp. - Hackberry, Sugarberry. Nice and buggy, attracts insectivores such as warblers. Three species are native to the Triangle area: Sugarberry (C. laevigata) is a common large tree that does best in moist areas. Common Hackberry (C. occidentalis) is similar but much less common. Georgia Hackberry (C. tenuifolia) is an uncommon small tree that does well in drier areas. Notes: B,N
  • Cornus florida - Flowering Dogwood. The red fruits are thoroughly enjoyed by birds. Notes: B,N
  • Ilex spp. - Holly. Deciduous hollies provide abundant fruits in winter. There are many great ones to choose from, such as Possumhaw (I. decidua), Winterberry (I. verticillata), and Mountain Winterberry (I. montana). Only the female trees bear fruit, but be sure to plant a male for pollination. Notes: N
  • Liquidambar styraciflua - Sweetgum. The tiny seeds in the star-shaped balls are popular with winter finches. Don't plant this if you want to be able to walk around barefoot!. Notes: N
  • Malus spp. - Apple, Crabapple. Nice and buggy, so lots of food. Don't mix with Junipers unless you don't mind the Cedar-Apple Rust disease (I don't) or plant a resistant variety of apple. Common Apple (M. pumila) is great, but I'd like to try the native Southern Crabapple (M. angustifolia). Notes: B,(N),
  • Morus rubra - Red Mulberry. A messy tree, true, but birds (and humans) love the fruits! Best in a sunny spot and where you don't care whether it makes a mess. Notes: N
  • Oxydendrum arboreum - Sourwood. Small-medium ornamental tree that usually grows at an angle instead of straight up. Attractive sprays of small white flowers in summer that are good for bees and butterflies, brilliant fall color, tasty young leaves, and nice and buggy for the birds - what more could you want? You may have to search for this one - not offered by many nurseries. Both Niche and Southern States carry it on occasion. Notes: B,N
  • Prunus serotina - Black Cherry. The fruits of this weedy native small tree are loved by birds, as you can tell by all the seedlings that sprout in your yard. Also the host plant for several species of butterfly. Notes: B,N
  • Quercus spp. - Oak. Every yard needs an oak tree. There are 16 species native to the area, from the majestic slow-growing White Oak (Q. alba) to the fast-growing Willow Oak (Q. phellos). Avoid the exotic Sawtooth Oak (Q. acutissima), since it is overplanted and there are many better native alternatives. Many different species of caterpillars feed on oaks, so there's plenty of food for birds. Notes: B,N
  • Vaccinium spp. - Blueberry. Anyone who's grown blueberries knows that they attract birds! One of the most common native species is Black Highbush Blueberry (V. fuscatum). The tree-like Sparkleberry (V. arboreum) is one of the most ornamental, with glossy mostly-evergreen leaves. Notes: B,N
  • Viburnum spp. - Viburnum. Downy Arrowwood (V. rafinesquianum) is one of the most common native shrubs in the Chapel Hill area. The fruits are gobbled up by birds (especially Catbirds) soon after they appear. You won't find this at a nursery, but any other native Viburnum should be good, too. One of the best is Rusty Blackhaw (V. rufidulum). Notes: N

Woody Vines

  • Gelsemium sempervirens - Carolina Jessamine, Carolina Yellow-Jessamine. The state flower of South Carolina is a fantastic native evergreen high-climbing vine with richly scented yellow flowers in early spring (and sometimes late fall and winter). It's not very invasive and provides good cover. Occasionally a butterfly will sip nectar from the flowers. If you don't care for perfumed flowers and have a moist spot, try G. rankinii. Notes: B,N
  • Parthenocissus quinquefolia - Virginia-Creeper. This deciduous grape relative has fruits designed for birds, brilliant fall color, and climbs up trees with ease. Notes: N
  • Toxicodendron radicans - Poison-Ivy. An attractive native with great color in fall and nice white fruits that birds adore, though it is somewhat invasive and causes severe allergic reactions in many people. If it doesn't bother you, consider leaving it for the birds. Notes: N

Herbaceous Plants

  • Agastache spp. - Giant-Hyssop, Anise-Hyssop, Hummingbird Mint. The flowers are enjoyed by hummingbirds, the seeds by goldfinches. A. foeniculum x rugosa 'Blue Fortune' is particularly attractive and easy to grow. The orange-flowered hummingbird-attracting southwestern/Mexican species usually die out after a year or two, but perform well as annuals. Notes: B,(N) (some species are native)
  • Coreopsis spp. - Coreopsis, Tickseed. Goldfinch food. Notes: B,N
  • Echinacea spp. - Purple Coneflower. Goldfinch food. Notes: B,N
  • Helianthus annuus - Common Sunflower. The most popular seed for feeders is easy to grow and ornamental. Notes: B,N?

Hummingbird Nectar Plants

Hummingbirds provide lots of entertainment in the garden. If you plant an assortment of nectar plants with staggered bloom times, there's no need to hang up a hummingbird feeder except in winter.


  • Aesculus pavia - Red Buckeye. Beautiful native small tree/large shrub covered with red tubular flowers in early spring, just as Ruby-throated Hummingbirds return. Notes: N

Woody Vines

  • Bignonia capreolata - Crossvine. Native climbing mostly-evergreen spring-blooming vine with flowers similar to Trumpet Creeper. Not aggressive. Notes: N
  • Campsis radicans - Trumpet Creeper. A rampant deciduous orange-flowered summer-blooming woody vine. Probably the #1 native hummingbird plant, but it is very aggressive, needs constant attention to keep it in check, and reseeds prolifically. Only plant this where you wouldn't mind it taking over. Notes: N
  • Lonicera sempervirens - Trumpet Honeysuckle, Coral Honeysuckle. Native, mostly deciduous, not aggressive like Japanese Honeysuckle. The normal flower color is red, but yellow cultivars are available and also work for hummers. Notes: N,


  • Buddleja davidii - Butterfly Bush. This long-blooming hardy shrub is a butterfly magnet, but also popular with hummers. Many different cultivars are available - most do well, but I don't recommend the white and yellow cultivars. Other Buddleja species are also great, but B. davidii is the best in my experience. Nursery catalogs often spell the genus "Buddleia", which is incorrect. Buddleja davidii rarely escapes from cultivation here, but in other areas it can be a noxious weed. Notes: B
  • Lantana camara - Lantana, Hedgeflower, Shrub-Verbena. Lantanas are renowned as super butterfly magnets, but they are also used by hummingbirds. Most Lantanas are not hardy here, but a few, such as 'Miss Huff', are hardy in zone 7. If you have young children, be sure to get a cultivar, such as 'Miss Huff,' that does not produce fruits - they are beautiful, but poisonous. Lantana is a major weed problem in Hawaii and other places, but not in North Carolina. Notes: B
  • Salvia greggii - Gregg's Sage, Texas Sage, Autumn Sage. Small aromatic evergreen bush, blooms much of the year (Mar-Nov), many cultivars available. Quite hardy. Native: Texas and Mexico. You can find all the Salvias listed here at Big Bloomers in Sanford (see below). For more see Notes on Growing Salvias. Notes: B,
  • Salvia microphylla - Small-leaved Sage, Baby Sage. Similar to S. greggii, with more lax habit and rugose (wrinkled) leaves. Native: Mexico and Arizona. S. microphylla var. neurepia is an excellent hardy Mexican variety with sticky fruity-scented leaves. Both varieties are evergreen most winters. Notes: B
  • Salvia regla - Mountain Sage. Large bright orange blooms in October-December on 4' tall deciduous shrub. No use to Ruby-throats, but it's a good one to have if you hope to lure a vagrant western hummer. Do not cut back in winter - leaves will resprout from buds on the stem. Native: Texas and Mexico.

Herbaceous Plants

  • Agastache spp. - Giant-Hyssop, Anise-Hyssop, Hummingbird Mint. The flowers are enjoyed by hummingbirds, the seeds by goldfinches. A. foeniculum x rugosa 'Blue Fortune' is particularly attractive and easy to grow. The orange-flowered hummingbird-attracting southwestern/Mexican species usually die out after a year or two, but perform well as annuals. Notes: B,(N) (some species are native)
  • Aquilegia canadensis - Red Columbine. Notes: N
  • Cuphea micropetala - Mexican Giant Cigar Plant. This Mexican native has big red tubular flowers that hummers go crazy over. Marginally hardy, this shrub acts as a perennial, dying back to the ground every winter. Available locally at Plant Delights. Notes: B
  • Impatiens capensis - Jewelweed, Spotted Touch-me-not. This annual needs a moist shady spot. Notes: N
  • Ipomoea quamoclit - Cypressvine. This annual is the best Morning-Glory for hummers, with spectacular red tubular flowers and exotic-looking lacy foliage. My favorite use is to light up a dwarf conifer by letting a Cypressvine climb up it!
  • Ipomopsis rubra - Standing-Cypress. A native biennial with red flowers designed for hummers. Many other species are native to the southwest. Notes: N
  • Lobelia cardinalis - Cardinal-Flower. Excellent native perennial for wet areas. Notes: N
  • Monarda didyma - Scarlet Bee Balm. One of the hummers' absolute favorites. Notes: B, N
  • Penstemon spp. - Beard-tongue. The white-flowered native P. digitalis (Foxglove Beardtongue) is widely available and attractive to hummers. The red-flowered southwestern/Mexican Penstemons are great hummer magnets, but perform poorly in the southeast. Notes (N)
  • Salvia coccinea - Scarlet Sage, Tropical Sage, Blood Sage. Blooms late into the fall, killed below 20F. The best cultivar may be 'Lady in Red', which is available from seed catalogs. May reseed itself. Native: Brazil (but widely naturalized). Notes: B
  • Salvia darcyi - Galeana Red Sage. Hardy 2-3' perennial with bright red blooms spring to fall. Fairly new introduction, but one of the best. Name still not certain - may be S. schaffneri and was introduced as S. oresbia. Native: Mexico.
  • Salvia elegans - Pineapple Sage. The usual cultivar of this has scarlet blooms in October-December, with the added bonus of scented leaves. Blooms after Ruby-throated Hummers leave, but it did attract a Rufous Hummingbird in Chapel Hill and the only NC record of Anna's Hummingbird in Charlotte. The cultivar 'Honey Melon' starts blooming in mid-July, so it makes a better hummer plant than 'Scarlet Pineapple'. Marginally hardy here in zone 7 - in my experience, about 1 in 4 plants survive the winter. Native: Mexico. Notes: B,
  • Salvia guaranitica - Guarani Sage, Blue Brazilian Sage, Anise(-scented) Sage. Hummers just love this, even though the flowers are blue, not red. Tolerates and even thrives in shade. Hardy to zone 6. Many cultivars available. The leaves are nicely scented, but not reminiscent of anise, in my opinion. This Salvia is a traditional medicinal plant in its home lands - leaves used as a sedative (see Viola et al. 1997, Phytomedicine 4:47-52). Native: se Brazil to ne Argentina. Notes:
  • Salvia roemeriana - Cedar Sage. This compact Texas native has brilliant red tubular flowers in the spring - much earlier than many other Salvias. Hardy in Zone 7 and reseeds itself. Native: Texas and Mexico. Notes: B
  • Salvia splendens (modern cultivars) - Red Salvia, Scarlet Sage. The most common red Salvia used for bedding (massed plantings of annuals). Many cultivars are available at any garden center and in seed catalogs. Plant tall red ones for best hummingbird results. Perennial but killed by frost, so it's treated as an annual here. Native: Brazil.
  • Salvia splendens 'vanhouttei' - Van Houtte's Sage. An early selection, close to the wild form of S. splendens. Spectacular 4'x4' plant covered with burgundy flowers all fall. Does very well in shade. Killed below 28F but very easy to propagate and keep indoors for the winter. Just stick a cutting in a glass of water, give it some light, and in a few weeks you'll have a new plant with lots of roots. Native: Brazil.

Good cover/food plants to AVOID:

  • Albizia julibrissin - Mimosa Tree, Silktree. Weedy, short-lived, naturalized small tree from China. Hummingbirds and butterflies love the fragrant flowers, though it's difficult to ID butterflies nectaring in the top of a Mimosa. Reseeds prolifically, so you should have some growing in your yard already. Best planted in an open lawn, so seedlings can be mown down. Fact sheet. Notes: B
  • Celastrus orbiculatus - Oriental Bittersweet. Rampant exotic woody vine with fruits that birds love, so they plant them everywhere. Common at Mason Farm. The native Celastrus scandens is a much better alternative. In general, planting any exotic vine is an extremely bad idea. Fact sheet.
  • Elaeagnus spp. - Autumn-Olive, Thorny-Olive, Silverberry. Wildlife folks love to plant these aggressive exotic weeds, but there are plenty of better native alternatives. Birds probably have already planted several in your yard. Fact sheet.
  • Euonymus fortunei - Wintercreeper, Climbing Euonymus. This evergreen vine is a noxious weed that easily spreads into native habitats. Fact sheet.
  • Hedera helix - English Ivy. Provides excellent cover for mice and rats that forage under your birdfeeder. It will take over your yard if you don't pull it up regularly. Very difficult to eradicate. Plant this only if you don't like gardening, butterflies, or your neighbors! Fact sheet.
  • Lespedeza cuneata - Sericea, Korean Lespedeza, Chinese Bush-Clover. Noxious weed that is still being promoted by wildlife folks for attracting quail. Good native alternatives include Lespedeza capitata (Round-headed Bush-Clover), Chamaechrista (Cassia) fasciculata (Partridge-Pea), Andropogon gerardii (Big Bluestem), and Sorghastrum nutans (Yellow Indian Grass). Fact sheets: 1 | 2.
  • Ligustrum sinense - Chinese Privet. Very aggressive weedy shrub. Birds love it, but you'll soon have thousands of seedlings in your yard. You probably have some already. Other Ligustrums are not as bad, but why take chances when there are better native alternatives available? Plant Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) or other native hollies instead. Fact sheets: 1 | 2.
  • Lonicera japonica - Japanese Honeysuckle. Birds love it, but it's a nasty weed, second only to Kudzu as "the vine that ate the South". (Much more common than Kudzu, but Kudzu puts on a better show, leaping over tall trees in a single bound!) Plant our native Lonicera sempervirens instead. Exotic bush Loniceras are bad news, too, except for Sweet-Breath-of-Spring (L. fragrantissima), which rarely escapes. Fact sheets: Lonicera japonica | bush honeysuckles.
  • Photinia spp. - Redtips. Birds love them, but they're tremendously overplanted, susceptible to disease, and there are better native alternatives.

Where can I find these plants?

- Can't miss!

  • Big Bloomers in Tramway, just south of Sanford. A plant collector's dream - they have just about every perennial and annual you can think of (plus a few shrubs) at fairly cheap prices. Take US 1 south past Sanford, turn right (west) at the Tramway stoplight, then turn left at the first road past the elementary school (look for the sign on the right).
  • Niche Gardens is an excellent nursery just west of Chapel Hill.
  • The North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. In spring and summer they have a native plant sale (behind the main building) and distribute free seeds to members.
  • Plant Delights south of Raleigh is pricey, but well worth a trip. If you're an avid gardener, you'll spend at least $100 the first time you visit!
  • The Raleigh Farmer's Market - be sure to visit Messenbrink's and Bramblewood.

- Recommended

  • Carolina Wild Nursery - a new native plant nursery in Anderson, SC
  • Cure Nursery - native wetland trees and shrubs in Pittsboro. Bill and Jennifer Cure sell at NCBG Chatham Growers' sales; visits to the nursery are by appointment only - call 919 542-6186
  • Garden Supply Company in Cary
  • The JC Raulston Arboretum at NC State (Raleigh) has occasional plant sales.
  • The North Carolina Division of Forest Resources offers large numbers of hard-to-find native tree seedlings at cheap prices.
  • Red Mill Nursery on Red Mill Road north of Durham specializes in trees and shrubs.
  • Southern States in Carrboro has a great selection at reasonable prices.
  • We-Du Natives - Marion, NC. Under new management since it merged with Meadowbrook Nursery in summer 2002.

- Worth a look

  • Camellia Forest Nursery west of Chapel Hill specializes in exotic trees and shrubs (especially Camellias), but has a few native bird/butterfly plants.
  • Carrboro Farmer's Market
  • Family Home and Garden on NC 55
  • Greensboro Farmer's Market

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All photographs and text ©2013 by Will Cook unless otherwise noted.