Backyard Trees for the Birds

If you’ve never experienced the sharp, tangy fragrance of a
freshly-crushed bay laurel leaf, I hardly know how to describe it. The leaves of the native bay laurel (Umbellularia
) make a good substitute for the sweet bay (Laurus nobilis)—that
pungent dried bay leaf that you fish out of a savory stew just before serving.

The bay
laurel is a gorgeous evergreen that is native to California and Oregon. It’ll stay small in a garden, growing slowly
and maybe eventually reaching twenty feet in height. I’ve seen them used successfully as topiaries in courtyards and
small culinary gardens. But in wild and
woody areas, they can be truly magnificent, reaching 75 feet tall and just
about as wide. Like most natives, the
bay laurel tolerates a wide variety of conditions—they’ll grow happily in deep
shade, for instance, and once they’re established they will put up with drought
conditions. You’ll see tiny yellow
flowers in spring, and then, come summer, they produce a purple fruit that
resembles a black olive. Even though
aphids have been known to infest bay laurels, the very presence of those pests
may attract small, insect-eating birds.

I like the
bay laurel in particular for the shelter it offers to birds. Give it enough space, prune off the lowest
branches to prevent it from becoming too shrubby, and it will grow into a
graceful tree that requires no pruning. Its ability to grow undisturbed and stand tall against winter storms
makes it a good place for nesting and resting.

stately California treasure is the madrone (Arbutus menziessi), which is
native from the southern end of California’s coast all the way to Canada. Most of us are used to seeing smaller
madrones that grow to around 25 feet, but they can reach an impressive 100
feet. The smooth, reddish branches are
a delight to touch; they feel like they have been carved by an artist. Some peeling bark is usually visible on the
branches of the madrone. Another
distinctive feature is the leaves: they
are easy to recognize thanks to their shiny green surface and fuzzy gray
underside. Pink and white flowers
appear in spring, and madrones are often loaded with orange and red berries in
fall—a treat for birds throughout the winter. Savor these trees if you have them in your neighborhood, and if you are
lucky enough to have the space for a stand of impressive native trees, the
madrone and the bay laurel should be your top choices.