Bountiful Fall – How Native Plants Help Wildlife Prepare For Winter

The arrival of fall marks a crucial period for our wildlife friends as they brace themselves for the upcoming winter. The tasks of securing food and seeking refuge, whether for hibernation or migration, are shared among mammals, birds and insects alike. Fortunately, native trees, shrubs, flowering plants and grasses stand ready to provide support so these creatures have all the essentials to endure the challenges of the cold season ahead. Do you want to welcome wildlife to your yard this fall? Read on to find out how you can strategically add native plants to create a backyard habitat that provides late season food and shelter!


Fruit Abundance

Finding fall fruit is essential for mammals and birds. Native trees and shrubs in Ontario have evolved to provide the right nutrition, in the form of acorns, nuts, berries and other fruits, precisely when they need it. This benefits both plants and animals. Animals that eat nuts and berries gain energy to survive, and they also help plants grow by dispersing seeds through their droppings or by forgetting where they buried them.

Trees and shrubs produce two types of fruit: either hard mast or soft mast. Mast is a term in botany used to describe the fruit of forest trees and shrubs.

Hard mast fruit includes hard-shelled acorns and nuts (along with winged seeds from maples or ashes). If you’ve ever seen squirrels foraging in the fall, you will know just how sought after acorns and nuts are. Nuts and acorns are very high in carbohydrates, protein and fat, which help wildlife fatten up for migration and hibernation and for building up winter stockpiles.

Ontario has several native nut-producing trees and shrubs, such as oaks, hickories, American beech, black walnut, butternut and hazelnut. In the past, American chestnut was an important nut tree in eastern North America but has mostly disappeared in the last century due to chestnut blight. Acorns and nuts are highly valued by many of our urban forest animals, such as squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, opossums, deer, mice, blue jays, woodpeckers, wood ducks and wild turkeys.


Blue Jay on the ground with an acorn in its beak (right). Red Squirrel in a tree with a black walnut in its mouth (left). © 2023 LEAF


Soft mast fruit includes fleshy, perishable fruit like berries and crabapples. They are just as important as hard mast for animals bulking up for winter. Many native shrubs, and some native trees, produce a substantial crop of soft mast fruit in late summer and fall that are rich in carbohydrates, vitamins and fat. You can often find birds eating soft-mast fruit straight off the tree or shrub, but mammals will also forage on the ground for fallen fruit. Nutrient-rich fruits from dogwoods, elderberries, nannyberries and hackberries provide energy for migrating birds heading south and help mammals and wintering birds survive the cold winter at home. Some shrubs, like snowberry and highbush-cranberry, produce fruit that persists through winter, helping both resident animals and serving as emergency food for early returning migratory birds.


Cedar Waxwings eating berries from a highbush cranberry shrub in winter (right). A squirrel eating the berry from a snowberry shrub (left). Left: “Delicious Berries!”, by Distant Hill Gardens and Nature Trail, licensed under CC BY 2.0; Right: © 2015


If your space allows, try combining fall-fruiting native trees and shrubs with different fruit types and fruiting times. This way, you can offer food to wildlife from autumn through early spring.


Final Flowers

As late summer transitions to fall, some of the very best flowering plants and grasses for wildlife in Ontario take centre stage. In fact, the three most important flowering plants crucial for the life cycles of many wildlife species in our ecosystem all bloom in fall! The three groups of solidago (goldenrods), symphyotrichum (asters) and helianthus (sunflowers) provide pollen that sustains many insect species: 42 bee species depend on goldenrods, 33 on asters and 50 on sunflowers. That’s an impressive number of species supported by just three plant groups! And since these plants bloom in fall, they also support a number of migrating butterfly species, like monarchs, red admirals, American ladies, American snouts, question marks and common buckeyes, as they travel south.


Red Admiral on a goldenrod (left). Monarch on a New England aster (right). © 2023 LEAF


Native Ontario grasses such as switchgrass, yellow prairie grass, big bluestem and little bluestem also play a vital role for many grasshoppers, moths and skippers that feed on these plants. The seeds of these grasses develop in fall and are an important food source for birds such as wild turkey, Canada geese, cardinals, redwing blackbirds, mourning doves, juncos and various sparrows. Birds also find a supplementary food source from grasses (and flowering plants) by feeding on the insects that are attracted to these plants.


A hover fly on big bluestem grass seeds. Either could become a meal for a bird! © 2023 LEAF


If you want to attract both pollinating insects and birds to your yard, incorporating flowers and grasses that bloom and seed in the fall is a great solution!


Fallen Leaves

As fall sets in, nature puts on a dazzling display of colours. Tree and shrub leaves change from green to shades of yellow, orange, red and gold before finally falling. While appealing to our eyes, this change also has a crucial ecological role. The layer of fallen leaves on the ground, known as leaf litter, provides protection for both plants and wildlife during the winter.

Even though our native trees and shrubs have evolved to endure the cold winter, they do better if they can keep their feet warm with a nice blanket of leaves. Fallen leaves provide many benefits: they regulate soil temperatures, which prevents plant roots from being exposed to extreme cold, and they enrich the soil by releasing nutrients as they decompose.

The layer of fallen leaves not only shields tree and shrub roots in winter but also offers a safe haven for insects and invertebrates over the winter. While certain insects have evolved to migrate to warmer areas during winter, the vast majority of insects, like butterflies and moths, overwinter in leaf litter as eggs, caterpillars, cocoons, chrysalises or even as adults. For example, great spangled fritillary and wooly bear caterpillars hide from both the cold and predators in piles of leaves. Red-banded hairstreaks use fallen oak leaves to lay eggs on in fall and to eat as newly-hatched caterpillars in spring. Other species like luna moths and swallowtails form cocoons and chrysalises that look like dried leaves, perfectly blending in with the leaf litter.


Wooly bear caterpillar on the ground (left). How many insects might be hiding in this leaf litter? (right). © 2023 LEAF


And it’s not just the butterflies and moths that shelter in fallen leaves. Bumble bee queens burrow a couple inches into the soil, relying on the insulating protection of leaves to keep them from freezing. In fact, many wildlife species like spiders, snails, worms, beetles, millipedes and more live in or under the leaves, and they serve as important food sources for chipmunks, turtles, amphibians and birds.

Make your backyard a wildlife-friendly sanctuary that invites animal friends to visit this fall and winter with our subsidized Backyard Tree Planting Program! Check out our Homeowners page to get started on tree planting and our Shrubs, Garden Kits and Pawpaws page to order shrubs.


Justin Lewis is the Marketing and Communications Lead at LEAF.

The #BackyardBiodiversity campaign is a partnership initiative with the Toronto Wildlife Centre and is supported by Ontario Power Generation.

LEAF offers a subsidized Backyard Tree Planting Program for private property. The program is supported by the City of Toronto, the Regional Municipality of York, the City of Markham, the Town of Newmarket, the Regional Municipality of Durham, the Town of Ajax, the Township of Brock, the Municipality of Clarington, the City of Oshawa, the City of Pickering, the Township of Scugog, the Town of Whitby and Ontario Power Generation.