10 Common Garden Flowers that Feed Birds

Coneflower seeds are a favorite of goldfinches.

Birds–chirping, whistling, and singing—are integral contributors to the daily symphony of garden sounds.  Their presence is also a sign of a healthy ecosystem.  Attract them by using the right combination of flowering plants and focusing on a succession of blooms and seeds. The end result will be a beautiful landscape and a smorgasbord for birds.

The majority of bird-friendly blooms need sunny space, though a few, like allium and black-eyed Susan, can flourish in light shade.  Some species will thrive in the leanest soil, while others prefer a growing medium enriched with organic material like Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. 

Zinnias, cosmos, marigolds and other prolific annuals are “cut and come again” flowers, producing fresh flowers over and over again after deadheading or cutting.  In fact, the biggest dilemma for bird and bloom-loving gardeners may be whether to enjoy cut flowers or let them set seeds for hungry birds.  When in doubt, plant enough for both uses and refrain from deadheading at the end of the gardening season.

The ten flowering plants below are among the best at providing beauty, ease of culture, and food for avian visitors. 

Spring Flowers for Birds

Golden groundsel has seeds that feed birds. Birds also eat the spring pollinators they attract.

Golden Groundsel (Packera aurea, Zones 3-9): The native golden-yellow flowers of golden groundsel are repellant to troublesome garden critters like deer and rabbits, but magnetic for pollinators and birds. Their golden-yellow clusters of daisies attract lots of pollinators (some of which birds eat) and brighten partially sunny to shaded beds and look great in woodland gardens. Flowering may start in mid-spring and continue to late spring. Leave the fluffy white seed heads for the birds to enjoy! Plants may spread, so give them space to move.

Many birds enjoy eating cornflower seeds.

Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus): Annual cornflower, sometimes known as ‘bachelor buttons”, is an old-fashioned annual that blooms from May through July.  The most common cornflower color is bright blue, but some varieties may also sport blue-purple, dark purple, white or pink flowers.  Gardeners with poor soil can succeed with these bird-friendly blooms because they prefer lean conditions.  Like other annuals, cornflowers will respond to cutting by producing more blooms.  From a bird’s perspective, the sooner the flowers go to seed the better, so make sure to let that happen.  The seed that the birds leave behind or drop will produce a new crop the following year. 

Summer Flowers for Birds

Cosmos attract insects that feed birds, and their seeds are also highly nutritious to many bird species.

Common Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus): Blooming from the beginning of summer through frost, this annual is among the most cheerful members of the daisy family or Asteraceae (formerly Compositae).  The longtime garden favorite bears familiar saucer-shaped flowers with white, pink, or rose petals surrounding golden centers.  Some varieties, like those in the Double Click series, feature double blooms.  The leaves are fern-like, accenting slender stems that may be anywhere from 1 to 4 feet tall.  Like bachelor buttons, cosmos favor lean soil and good drainage.  For color variation, try Cosmos sulphureus, with yellow, orange, or orange-red petals.  Birds will have no trouble finding these tall beauties, which rise between 2 and 6 feet.

Zinnia seeds are a nutritious bird favorite, so leave up those seedheads in fall!

Zinnias (Zinnia species and hybrids): The world of annual zinnias is wide, encompassing varieties in just about every color except for brown and blue. Heights range from ground-hugging (6 inches) to 4 feet tall.  Some of the most popular are tall zinnias (Zinnia elegans). All zinnias bear bright, daisy-like flowers, borne on somewhat coarse, hairy stems adorned with elongated green leaves.  Pinching back the stems of young zinnia plants encourages branching, making more flowers for you and the birds.  Zinnias will also bloom from early summer through frost but are sometimes prone to powdery mildew, a fungal disease.  Avoid crowding the plants, as good air circulation discourages powdery mildew.

Coneflowers: Once upon a time, if you wanted a perennial coneflower (Echinacea spp.), your options were limited to the lovely blooms of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  Now perennial coneflowers have become the darlings of the horticultural world and choices abound.  Petal colors range from white, like the lovely ‘White Swan’, through a range of yellows, peach, pink, orange, and red, with bi-colors, like the fetching ‘Green Twister’ thrown in for good measure.  Many of the newer coneflowers are also fragrant, an added plus.  The one thing that they all have in common is large, cone-shaped centers filled with seeds.  Goldfinches, in particular, love them.

Marigold seeds are numerous and feed birds.

Marigolds: Annual marigolds (Tagetes spp.) are easy to grow and, tolerant of a range of conditions.  Tall types, usually varieties of Tagetes erecta or African marigold, may reach a height of up to 4 feet tall, with large flower heads of cream, yellow, or yellow-orange petals.  Blooming through the summer, both flowers and stems are aromatic and quite effective at repelling deer and other garden pests.  Low-growing French marigolds (Tagetes patula) have all the virtues of their taller relations, but top out at 6 to 12 inches—perfect for containers, small spaces, and border edgings.  When flowerheads are left intact for bird consumption, marigolds will self-seed readily.

Nutritious seeds are the main attraction of black-eyed-Susans, so keep your seedheads up in fall.

Black-Eyed Susans: An old-time favorite, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) flowers from mid to late summer.  Native to North America, the plants may be biennial or perennial, but all feature prominent seed-filled cones that attract birds, especially finches and chickadees.  One of the most popular garden “Susans” is Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’, a reliable perennial that is widely available in garden centers and features some of the largest flowers.  In general, black-eyed Susans can flourish in a wide variety of soil conditions and may even tolerate light shade. 

A scarlet tanager looks for insects on a sunflower head.

Annual Sunflowers:  It is hard not to love annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), which are held in high esteem by humans, mammals, and birds.  With broad, open flower faces and statuesque profiles, drought and heat-tolerant sunflowers, are also among the easiest plants to grow from seed.    Breeders have worked hard to expand the range of available sizes and colors.  Petals can be cream, shades of yellow, gold, orange, or russet, with bicolors popping up on the market every year.  All have seed-filled centers.  The big leaves may look ragged by summer’s end, but the flowerheads more than make up for that.  Container gardeners do not have to miss out on the flowers, or the birds, because shorter varieties like ‘Little Becky” topping out at about 3 feet.

Autumn Finale

Chickadees eat visiting insects and seeds of asters.

Asters: Perennial asters (Symphyotrichum spp., Eurybia spp. and Aster spp.) are no longer grouped under one species name, but they all feature daisy-like blooms in shades ranging from white through a host of pinks and roses to blues and blue-purples.  For visual impact, you can’t beat traditional New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).  Upright and leafy, they may grow up to 6 feet tall, but can also be kept shorter with judicious pruning earlier in the growing season.  Shorter asters, like the Woods series (‘Purple’, ‘Blue’ and ‘Pink’) have the same winsome flowers beloved of both people and birds but feature shorter stature (up to 18 inches). Butterflies relish the flowers’ nectar and birds feast on the autumn seeds.

Perennial sunflowers are essential late-bloomers for feeding birds.

Perennial Sunflowers: Drought-tolerant and versatile, sedums have really caught on with gardeners.  Whether you choose tall varieties like the much-loved ‘Autumn Joy’ or shorter ones, like ‘Wildfire’, sedums feature flowerheads of small, star-shaped blooms that draw butterflies.  Hanging around throughout fall, when other flowering plants have long since given up, sedums attract birds like finches with their plump seedheads.  If you can, avoid cutting back sedums until spring clean-up.

Many of these garden flowers naturally self-sow from year to year, so allow a few seedlings to provide more bird food and beauty to future gardens.

Perennial Sunflowers are Fall Gold

Perennial Sunflowers are Fall Gold Featured Image
The tall hybrid sunflower ‘Lemon Queen’ offers lots of starry yellow flowers in early fall.

Fall is for gold: golden trees, golden grasses, and golden sunflowers glowing in the fading sun of the season. The many sunflowers of fall are especially glorious, and unlike the common annual sunflowers of summer, they are perennials that come back year after year. Their numerous species are also American natives that deserve a place in our gardens for reasons beyond simple beauty.

Native perennials tend to be tough and easy, and their habitat value is nearly unmatched. Their profuse, daisy flowers draw hundreds of different insect pollinators and they mature to brown, crackling seedheads packed with nutritious seeds for winter birds and other wildlife. There are also lots of different species and cultivated varieties to choose from of varying heights, textures and colors.

Table Mountain Plant Haven
Table Mountain’ is a sweet, low-growing perennial sunflower perfect for smaller garden spaces. Image care of Plant Haven

Willowleaf Sunflower

Of the tall native sunflowers, the willowleaf sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius) is a particularly elegant charmer. Its fine, slender leaves and upright habit provide architectural interest through summer when plants are not in bloom. Then from September through October its stems elongate and become topped with starry, clear yellow flowers. The plants are very large, reaching 8 to 10 feet in height. If gardeners cut them back to 3 feet in early summer, they will be more compact and floriferous by fall. Another option is to choose the popular cultivar ‘First Light’, which only reaches 3 to 4 feet in height. This compact variety looks stunning when planted with the red-hued ornamental switchgrass ‘Shenandoah’. (Read more about ornamental grasses here!) For low, tidy flower borders gardeners can also choose from the super dwarf varieties ‘Table Mountain’ (16-18″ in height) and ‘Low Down’ (1–12″ in height).

Maximilian’s Sunflower

Another tall, prolific sunflower is Maximilian’s sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani), which has strap-like foliage and has upright stems that reach heights between 4 and 10 feet. Flowers appear from late summer to early fall. In the wild, plants are commonly found in prairies as well as limestone-rich soils. As with the willowleaf sunflower, plants can be cut back in June to maintain shorter, denser growth. Otherwise, plants may require staking by bloom time.

Golden daisies
Golden daisies top the Jerusalem artichoke and edible tubers are produced at the roots.

Jerusalem Artichoke

The edible tubers of Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) make this tall, attractive sunflower a vegetable crop as well. This is a huge sunflower that spreads and needs lots of space, so it truly is better suited to the veggie patch. Stems commonly reach between 6 and 8 feet and become topped with pretty golden flowers by early fall. Thick, tuberous roots are produced by the plants that are crunchy and taste somewhat like a nutty artichoke (another sunflower relative). The tubers can be eaten raw or steamed.

Hybrid Sunflowers

A favorite hybrid sunflower found in garden centers and nurseries is ‘Lemon Queen’, which is a cross between the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) and stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus ssp. subrhomboideus). Its tall stems reach 5 to 8 feet and bloom in late summer to early fall. Plant with feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutifloraKarl Foerster’) and New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) for an impressive fall combination.

'Capenoch Star' sunflower
Distinctive, large, golden centers distinguish the flowers of ‘Capenoch Star’ sunflower.

Another garden-worthy perennial sunflower with a more manageable height is Helianthus ‘Capenoch Star’It bears beautiful single flowers of rich gold from September to October atop 4- to 5-foot plants. Though a hybrid, this variety can self-sow, so expect some seedlings. It looks great planted alongside blue-hued grasses, like ‘Heavy Metal’ switch grass. 

Other Species Sunflowers

Many sunflower species are a little wild for the garden and best planted in urban meadows, roadsides or pollinator strips. The airy purple disk sunflower (Helianthus atrorubens) and super tall giant sunflower (Helianthus giganteus) fall into this category. 

Growing Perennial Sunflowers

Most sunflowers are meadow plants adapted to bright sunlight. Their soil needs vary from plant to plant, but most grow best in load with average to good drainage. The addition of some rich Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend upon planting will help ensure plants get a good head start. High organic matter is especially important for Jerusalem artichoke yields.

Sunflower blooms attract a wide variety of insects including many bees, Syrphid flies, beetles, butterflies, and other insects. The seeds are eaten by many bird species, such as mourning doves, eastern goldfinches, chickadees, and nuthatches as well as rodents. Whitetail deer are even known to browse the foliage.

It’s not too late to add a little gold to your fall landscape. There are so many rewards to reap for such little investment, and with so much variety there’s practically a sunflower for every garden.

Helianthus atrurubens
The airy stems of purpledisk sunflower look best in a managed meadow setting.