Top 3 Native Flowers for a Caterpillar and Bird-Friendly Yard

Illustration by Ann Litrel of Top 3 Native Plants for Caterpillars in Home Landscaping GardensIt’s 5:30 am. My fellow Master Naturalist Diane Tidwell is driving, speeding south as the sun rises. Our destination is Macon, Georgia, where today, she and I have a chance to meet a rising “rock star.” His name is Doug Tallamy.

Tallamy is an entomology professor. In other words, a bug expert. The best-selling author is keynote speaker for the annual Georgia Native Plant Symposium. Sporting glasses and gray hair, he appears the quintessential bookish professor. Yet Tallamy is leading a revolution, a grassroots movement in conservation home landscaping. As he talks, he flashes photo after photo of suburban yards, including his own, showing a sanctuary for butterflies, pollinators, and native nesting birds.

Doug’s message is full of hope: the key to restoring our eco-system can take place right in our yards.

– 85% of land in Eastern United States is owned by private landowners, 110 acres in suburbia.

– If just half that acreage is landscaped with productive native plants, we will re-create a sprawling network of wilderness – 50 million acres, bigger than all of the national parks put together. Tallamy calls it “Homegrown National Park.”

Here is what has happened: Many common landscaping plants, like crape myrtle and liriope, are exotics. They feed virtually ZERO native insects, on whom the whole community of our birds and small animals depend.  Our native plants, on the other hand, co-evolved to feed our insects, birds and wildlife. Leaves of native plants, for example, feed  the caterpillars of native butterflies. Bloom times and berries of native trees and shrubs match the migration and nutritional needs of migrating birds, etc.

Doug’s message is this: Wildness is a renewable resource. Re-create Nature’s eco-system right where you are.

Author and enomology professor Doug Tallamy with Ann Litrel

Caterpillars Are the Key to Helping Birds

Caterpillars, according to Tallamy, are THE KEY to the ecosystem. Here is why:

– Ounce for ounce, caterpillars transfer more energy from plants to other animals than any other lifeform.

– Caterpillars are essential for birds – 6,000-9,000 caterpillars are needed to rear one clutch of baby birds.

So how do you help? As you improve or replace your aging plants, just make sure to use natives. If you’re in a hurry, the first and easiest step is to shrink your lawn. Plant a native tree in a suitable spot, and surround it with an island of native shrubs and perennials. You’ll save water, and cut down on your chemical use, too. Voila!

In the illustration above, I show the top 3 native perennials for caterpillars. Those are: Goldenrods (host to 112 butterfly species), native Sunflowers (62 butterfly species), and Joe-Pye weeds (host to 34 butterfly species).

Butterfly Show In My Yard

Five years ago, I planted a native passionflower vine in my backyard bed and let it ramble among my blueberries through the summer. Passionflower is the ONLY known host for caterpillars of the gulf fritillary butterfly.

Every summer since then, I have been treated to a show of dozens of the bright orange fritillaries dancing among the showy purple flowers. Last year a pair of bluebirds raised their young in the bushes right next to the vines. I have no doubt the baby bluebirds dined well on fritillary caterpillars.

Just one plant – and I provided food for a whole community!



Find the best native plants in our zip code for supporting wildlife at the National Wildlife Federation database NativePlantFinder.

Locate nurseries to purchase local native plants at the website of the Georgia Native Plant Society.


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Gardening for Wildlife – I Have a Magic Bird Feeder

Illustration by Ann Litrel of Native Birds and Berries to use in gardening with wildlife

My Magic Birdfeeder fills itself. What’s more, it gets bigger and holds more food every year. And to top it off, this feeder sustains not only birds, but caterpillars and beneficial insects as well, which also feed baby birds.

The magic birdfeeder is my yard. This small suburban plot is just 3/8th of an acre. But around the edges of the tree islands grow a cornucopia of berry-producing shrubs and trees which feed birds all year round.

A Calendar of Magic Moments

February Holly calls to the cedar waxwings migrating overhead. They descend by the hundreds to feast on the berries before they continue north. One day next month, I’ll hear the riotous noise and rush to the window to see the masked invaders – elegant but greedy, swarming to strip every bit of red before they move on. It’s one of my favorite “spring” days.

June Blueberries attract pairs of robins and thrashers each summer. As they hunt caterpillars for their babies, they sneak away to feed on the sweet fruit. A half dozen blueberry bushes grace my front yard with pink blossoms in spring, bright red leaves in the fall.

September Beautyberries feed the catbirds and cardinals with clusters of bright purple berries as decorative as any flowers. This shrub, an American native, has the added bonus of being deer resistant.

October Dogwoods bear bright red berries, with red fall foliage which signals to birds that the highly nutritious fruit is ripe. The berries are quickly eaten by both residents and migrants headed south.

December Viburnum is mostly bare, but a few dark berries linger to feed the hungry. Mapleleaf viburnum bears thrillingly colored leaves which turn right at Thanksgiving. I time their pruning to use the branches in my Thanksgiving table arrangements.

Jump Start the Magic

  1. Find a Spot

There is no need to re-landscape your whole yard – start small! Treat yourself and choose a planting spot where you can enjoy the view from a window. Achieve economy and a natural look by purchasing smaller plants and grouping them in multiples of 3  (3, 6, 9, etc.) Pick a spot with at least some sun to ensure berry production for the birds.

  1. Choose a Native

Many berry plants have both native and nonnative varieties. Choose a native variety whenever possible – it has the added bonus of being adapted to feed not only our local birds, but caterpillars and insects which are the primary food source for their babies.

Research bird-friendly plant choices on Audubon’s website.

The Georgia Native Plant Society publishes lists of native plants as well as resources, local and online nurseries, where they can be purchased. GNPS Sources for Native Plants 

Avoid patented hybrids from commercial nurseries – many times these varieties have been bred for looks only and are not as good for birds and wildlife. Mother Nature knows best!

  1. Add More Magic Each Year

I cannot recommend enough the very enlightening book “The Living Landscape” by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy. Fabulous photos provide a road map for landscaping with native plants using traditional principles – creating beauty and biodiversity in your yard for a far greater number of native birds, pollinators, and wildlife.

Just by adding a few plants each year, you’ll be on your way to creating a self-filling, ever-growing, multi-colored Magic Birdfeeder of your own – one which will last for generations to come.


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Leave the Leaves for a Pollinator-Friendly Backyard

Yard Signs available HERE


Sometimes I wonder if bagging leaves started as a practical joke on us homeowners. As an artist and a gardener, I can tell you that getting rid of leaves is one of those suburban traditions that just doesn’t make sense.

Leaves are great natural mulch.

From a gardener’s perspective, leaves are healthy. They are Nature’s great compost, perfectly designed to enrich the roots of trees, shrubs, and flowers. They have nutrients in them that the trees draw up from deep in the soil. WHY would we throw them out?

From an artist’s perspective, leaves are no problem. They’re brown, just like mulch. They look great in your beds, around your shrubs. If your leaves look “too big,” just run the edges of your beds over a few times with a mower or put them in a shredder before you blow them into your shrubbery beds.

The entire trick to mulching with leaves is this: edges. If you can’t part with the look of neat beds, purchase a few bags of brown mulch. Mound the mulch along the edges of the beds. Six inches in, let it thin out. Take a few handfuls and scatter it into the bed so the mulch blends into the natural shredded leaves.

Take it from an artist – the human eye is mysteriously attracted to neat edges, and for some reason will ignore all kinds of messiness – if only the edges are neat.

Save money on mulch. Save money on fertilizer. Leave the leaves.

Leaves are a haven for pollinators.

 Leaves make a healthier landscape. They hold moisture. Among the leaves are the cocoons of hundreds of butterflies and moths who are natural pollinators. Along with the leaves in our beds are dry stems and pieces of wood that shelter small pollinating bees over the winter. The nutrients and microbes of leaf litter sustain thousands of insects and the small animals who eat them – snails, fireflies, lizards, birds, turtles, salamanders…

They all depend on the nutrients of leaf litter for the foundation of their food chain.

Community trends favor healthier landscaping.

Over the past few years, savvy communities and neighborhoods have been easing away from the sterile look of chemical- and maintenance-dependent turf. These neighborhoods have developed standards which allow more natural designs of native grass and wildflower landscaping. Pollinators thrive. Dragonflies flourish and control mosquitos.

The healthiest and most stress-free fall yard you’ve ever enjoyed might be yours with this one simple idea –

Leave the Leaves.


Help educate your community!
This infographic is available to share with your community, group or in your publication.

Yard Signs available HERE

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Three Pears, or Homage to “Six Persimmons”

Watercolor painting of Three Pears
“Three Pears”, homage to the Chinese Painting “Six Persimmons”


Asian art is a constant inspiration to me, so when my friend Debbie brought a bag of pears for me from her tree, I immediately thought of the work “Six Persimmons” when I decided to paint the fruit.


“Six Persimmons” is a work painted in 13th century China, by a monk named Muqi Fachang (or Mu Ch’i Fa-Ch’ang). The simplicity and perfection of this particular painting has always fascinated me. It is composed of no elements but six fruits – two dark, two gray, two ghostly white. All perfectly balanced on a mottled background and painted in only blue-black ink. Six Persimmons by Chinese monk


To compose my 21st century painting, I chose three pears and lined them up on the table. As I painted, I immersed myself in Looking – paying attention to each fruit and its utterly unique shape, its subtle reflections, the curves of its stem and leaves, the tiny flecked spots on its golden skin. Yes, an ordinary pear. But each fruit unique.


The paintings, Chinese and American, are very different – my watercolor infused with 21st century optics of color and perspective, the 13th century painting with a tradition of simple ink strokes.


Yet the meditative impulse is common to them both. The always difficult exercise of rejecting the urgent – whether the laundry, the business phone call, the overdue errand. Honestly, my own struggle, year after year.


Being fully present.


Seeing Each Thing for Itself.


I can only smile and know that I am a part of this timeless pursuit of artists through the centuries.



“Three Pears, or Homage to Six Persimmons”

Triptych, custom framed in dark grain wood. Overall dimensions 24″ w x 13″h


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Altamaha Adventure: Kayaking On Georgia’s Little Amazon

Great Egret On the Altamaha River, painting by Ann Litrel


Alligators and six foot long sturgeon reputedly swim in the depths of the murky river under our boat. My friend Ginger sits behind me, steering the kayak while I periodically break to click a quick photo. We are deep in south Georgia, navigating the wildest unbroken stretch of river east of the Mississippi: the Altamaha, which flows freely for 137 miles with no dam to break its course to the sea.

The river is known as Georgia’s “Little Amazon.”

We’re here on a weekend stewardship trip with the Georgia Conservancy, joined by 70 fellow paddlers from all over the Southeast. Our bright boats and life vests form a colorful parade gliding atop the water. On either side of us the wide fingers of the Altamaha reach far inland, spreading quietly between the trunks of cypress and tupelo.

The silence is eerie. Small drips and splashes follow our paddles through the water – but there is no motor noise anywhere to be heard.

So far, so good. I briefly recall the warning in bold print on our registration form: “Intermediate Paddlers only.” I blithely ignored it.

It’s been two days since Ginger and I pulled into the Altamaha River Campground, tossing together a two person tent that appeared designed for a single small child with a pillow.  A night in the tent produced dents in my back and frozen fingers at dawn, but multiple pots of coffee and hot eggs resuscitated all of us, and by 9 a.m. we were fortified for the all-day paddle from camp to sea.

The river surged with spring rains and a slow tidal breath from the sea. But the miles of wild banks were peaceful, and even as we drew near the small town of Darien, our take-out point, no signs of humans marred the landscape. Swamp trees gave way to rustling marsh grasses. Bald eagles soared high in the blue, alighting from time to time in the few lonely trees standing in the marsh.

The wilderness made its imprint on us in silence and ancient wildness.

Today, our second day, is another gift. We have ventured into the deep swamp creeks surrounding the campground – the “best part of the weekend,” say returning paddlers. With each stroke we penetrate further into the prehistoric forest. Trunks of trees loom large in our path. Ginger and I suddenly notice water inside our kayak, sloshing over our seats. Maybe a slow leak. We look up. The spaces between the trees have narrowed.

Perhaps an intermediate paddler would know what to do.

One of the guides paddles up behind us. “This is where is gets a little tough for a tandem kayak, “ he says laconically. “Y’all have much experience?”


Experience would be handy right about now – say, when you’re paddling a leaky 18 foot kayak into a thicket of trees and you need to execute a sudden 90 degree turn to avoid crashing into a snag of fallen logs.

We weren’t the only ones having problems. Kayaks running into kayaks. Canoes stuck between trees. One boat taking on water and getting close to capsizing. Within three minutes, our group was a floating traffic jam. Forget about enjoying the wilderness. Ginger and I wanted only to get out of the swamp without swimming with the gators.

As it turned out, we finally did get untangled, and after a couple more hours made it back to base camp. As a matter of fact, we became “intermediate” paddlers.

Lying in the tent that night, we heard the barred owl call. The stars shone like maybe they have since the beginning of the world. And at dawn we watched a great white egret hunt along the shoreline in the mist.

Worth a couple of cold nights and wet bottoms.

Kayaking the Altamaha River with the Georgia Conservancy


Resources for Georgia Nature Excursions:

The Georgia Conservancy 

The Nature Conservancy


Dance of the Darters

Dance of the Darters

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contact the artist.

Dance of the Darters

Acrylic paint, 12” x 18”
Private collection

This painting pays homage to the native species of the Etowah River – the large-flowered skullcap, the small-whorled pogonia, and the small freshwater clams; but most of all the darters, the tiny fish that make their home in the shallows of the Etowah.
Four species of darter are found in the Etowah and nowhere else – the Etowah Darter, the Cherokee Darter, and two species of Holiday Darter. In the dance of the Darters,” these diminutive fish arch out of the water toward the heavens, larger than life, so we can see the pure fancy in their markings – flahes of color spangled on scale and fin as thought the Creator painted them for joy itself.

The creatures who emerge from the background hills are the animals indigenous to the Eastern deciduous forest, some familiar, some scarce. Their half-hidden outlines hint at the Creation which is ongoing – the emergence of new species through the eons, and the possibilities of life to come.

The “Dance of the Darters” is a part of the dance of Life itself, a dance which began in the dawn of time. We are a part of that movement, slowly learning our steps, trying to create a more beautiful Dance – for all of the creatures dancing with us on Earth.

Earthly Attachments

Earthly Attachments

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Earthly Attachments

Watercolor, 20” x 16”
Private collection

In Asian art, the water lily is a symbol of contemplation. As the Christian Church has made inroads into Asia, the flower has been incorporated into Christian symbolism as well.

A less fortunate history accompanies the frog, who has come to symbolize earthly attachments. Since playing its part in the Plagues of Egypt, the frog has never really made a comeback. Perhaps its meaning makes reference to the Pharaoh’s stubbornness, clinging to his Jewish slaves and his way of life.

The frog and the water lily are in opposition. Earthly attachments cannot exist in a life of contemplation. When we live the contemplative life, we gain true perspective, abandon material things, and experience a rebirth of the spirit. We forsake, in the end, our earthly attachments.



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Watercolor, 19 1/2” x 14 1/2”
Private collection

In spring the butterfly emerges transformed from the tomb of his cocoon. The magnificent lily rises up from a lowly bulb. These are miracles of the everyday sort.
In the book of John we are told the story of a miracle: Lazarus, a man whom Jesus raises from the dead. It is a miracle because it is not a daily occurrence. It is outside our realm of experience.

Every day we are surrounded by a myriad of miracles which we do not recognize, because they are “commonplace.” But if we look at the world anew, we may see Signs everywhere in the ways of His earthly Creation. The specific events – the emergence of the butterfly, or the lily in the spring, are simply echoes of the larger plan God has for mankind – Resurrection, and life everlasting.

The Passion

The Passion
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The Passion

Watercolor, 16” x 20”
Private collection

In the language of the Christian church, “the Passion” refers to the sufferings of Christ following the Last Supper, through His Crucifixion. In Christian tradition, the goldfinch came to represent the Passion, because people believed the bird to live entirely upon thorny plants such as the thistle.

The physical suffering of Christ in the last hours of His life is unfathomable. Indeed, the life of the average person in Jesus’ time was full of suffering and physical hardships. This remains true for the majority of the world’s people today. Despite inevitable losses and pain, our lives, by comparison, are easy. Most of us would not want that to change.

Nevertheless, while we may not seek out a diet of thorns, we may welcome the unavoidable lessons of pain in one way: It is only in knowing pain that we grow. The lessons of our trials are not in vain. In the end, they may transform us, moving us to the action of love, so that we work to make a better life for others.

Like the goldfinch, having found nourishment among the thorns, our spirit then flies to greater heights.



To inquire about purchasing a print,
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Watercolor, 9” x 12”
Private collection

I am the vine, you are the branches.

John 15:5

In the language of Christian symbolism, grapes have come to stand for redemption. The butterfly, poised to take flight to the heavens, signifies the soul.

Many of us live the “life unexamined.” That is, we do not see how we have fallen short of glory. For some of us that moment never comes. For some of us it comes on gradually; and for some it arrives in a sudden shattering of delusions, in the supreme pain of self-recognition. Afterward, life’s struggles may appear meaningless. We may succumb to cynicism, or at the other extreme, to the pleasures of self-indulgence.

Jesus proclaimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” If we search, we find the grace that is offered us. We make peace with our imperfect natures, and we come to know we have a place in God’s eternal Creation.