Out My Backdoor: Saving Trees Before Building a Home

Flowering dogwood berries and foliage by Terry W. Johnson


By Terry W. Johnson

In recent years, Georgia has experienced unprecedented population growth. This has brought about dramatic changes in the landscape. While the growth is inevitable, if we are not careful, we will destroy one of the reasons why so many people want to live here – the natural beauty of our state and the wild animals and plants that make it such a special place to call home.

One way we can mitigate the impact of these changes is by preserving some of the native trees that are both beautiful to us and valuable to wildlife. When building a home, one of the best ways to do this is by walking your property before the bulldozer arrives. Mark the trees that would add to the beauty of your place and provide your new wildlife neighbors with food, nesting sites and protection from predators and the elements.

One of the neat things about leaving a mature fruit, berry or nut-bearing tree is you do not have to wait years for it to produce of crop of wildlife food. By being there the tree is obviously well suited for the location. In addition, by leaving it you help mitigate the loss of valuable wildlife lands.
Here is a short list of some of the native trees you should include in your landscape plan.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the group of native trees that are most valuable to wildlife in Monroe County, where I live, is oaks.  Approximately 150 species of wildlife eat acorns. Some of the local species that dine on acorns are white-tailed deer, wood ducks, wild turkeys, squirrels, brown thrashers and tufted titmice.

Throughout the U.S., various oak species serve as hosts for a total of 557 species of moths and butterflies. The names of just a few of the local moths and butterflies that use oaks as a host plant include red-spotted purple, banded hairstreak and Horace’s duskywing butterflies, plus clymene, cecropia and imperial moths.

Any of the oaks are valuable additions to Georgia yards; however, the water oak is perhaps species most often found in yards in my area. The water oak begins bearing acorns at age 20, while many of the other species do not begin producing acorns until they are 40 to 50 years old. In addition, the water oak produces a bountiful crop of acorns ever year or two. In comparison, the highly touted white oak bears a bumper crop of acorns only every four to six years.

Although water oaks do not display pleasing fall foliage, they do make a fine shade tree. They also grow to 50 to 80 feet tall with a spread of 50 to 80 feet at maturity.

Flowering Dogwood
This is one our most beautiful trees. In the spring, flowering dogwoods adorn yards and the countryside with splotches of white flowers that can be seen from afar scattered throughout leafless woodlands. If that is not enough, it treats us to a visual extravaganza with shiny red berries and crimson leaves in the fall. At maturity, the flowering dogwood has a spread of 20 to 30 feet and height of 25 to 30 feet.

Throughout the fall and winter, scores of mammals and birds vie for the tree’s crop of red berries and the seeds they contain. These critters vary from gray foxes and eastern chipmunks to quail and wild turkeys and brown thrashers, eastern bluebirds and others.

Although the flowering dogwood is not considered a valuable nectar plant, its blooms do offer pollen to bees and other wild pollinators. The tree is also an important host plant for the spring azure butterfly and 115 other moths and butterflies.

Eastern Redbud
Although the redbud is one of our smaller trees, reaching only about 20 feet in height, it is also one of our most beautiful. One of the neat things about the redbud is that it blooms before most trees begin leafing out. It even blooms before the flowering dogwood.

The redbud’s rosy-pink blooms literally cover the tree in spring. And in the fall, its heart-shaped leaves offer another treat when they turn yellow-green.
While topping out at no more than 30 feet tall, the redbud’s branches can blanket an area about 25 to 35 wide.

The demure Henry’s elfin lays its eggs on redbuds, along with a handful of moths including the striking io moth. Since the redbud blooms so early in the year, it is an important source of pollen and nectar for pollinators. When my largest redbud is in full bloom, it literally hums with the sounds of feeding bees.

Redbud seeds provide food for white-tailed deer and squirrels, plus cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, quail, wild turkeys and other birds.

Eastern Red Cedar
Many Georgians refer to this tree simply as cedar. Some often use the attractive evergreen as a Christmas tree. Red cedar is an important wildlife food plant. Each year, the tree produces small fleshy, greenish-blue berries, with bumper crops appearing every two to three years. The berries are eaten by cedar waxwings and more than two dozen other birds. Mammals such as chipmunks and opossums also dine on them.

The red cedar is important to wildlife, as well, because its dense foliage offers birds and others escape from predators and cold weather.These trees can reach a height of 50 feet and have a canopy of only 10 to 20 feet.

Of course, there are scores of other native trees and wild plants that you would do well to spare when building a home, but space does not allow me to mention them in this column. However, I promise to expand this list in the future.

In the meantime, if possible, leave some native plants when preparing your lot for building. That simple act may one day prove to be a sound investment.

Terry W. Johnson is a retired DNR program manager and executive director of TERN, the Wildlife Conservation Section’s friends group. Check out past columns, his Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and his book “A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.Permission is required to reprint his columns.