Choosing a tree is a big decision. If you choose wisely the tree will continue to be a valued part of the landscape long after you've moved on. If you choose poorly you'll be saddled with managing the problems an ill-informed tree choice creates. With so many trees to look at in the nursery, how do you decide what the most important characteristic is: leaf color, tree shape, shade-giving, flower? Actually, it's none of these.
The best reason to choose one tree over another is by the number of native insect species it supports. Specifically, you want to attract the most varieties of butterflies and moths. That's right I'm asking you to invite more bugs into your yard. I know that many homeowners work very hard to make sure there are no bugs around but for habitat restoration it's the wrong approach. (Invasive pests like winter moth or Asian long horn beetle are a separate topic unrelated to attracting native pollinators to our landscapes.)
Creating habitats for our native pollinators is a pretty familiar topic to most gardeners by now. Let's assume you are familiar with why it is important to do this. If you aren't, I recommend you read Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas W. Tallamy. On the website, , there is a list called Best Bets: What to Plant. It is the result of a study that determined which trees support the most types of Lepidoptera, the species name for butterflies and moths. If you go to the website, click on the link that says 'the complete list of data' for some really good detail. The lists are sorted and ranked by trees, shrubs, and perennials so you can really fill your home landscape with the best host plants for our essential pollinators.
Top 5 Native Trees for Pollinator Habitat
Oak - The highest number of native Lepidoptera is supported by oak trees (Quercus) with a whopping 518. Then, Cherry (Prunus) 429; Willow (Salix) 440; Birch (Betula) 400; and, Poplar (Populus) 358.
Worst Trees for Supporting Native Pollinators
The list of trees that support no Lepidoptera species is long. Most of them, not surprisingly, are not native to this area. Gingko – a popular choice for it’s interesting leaf -- supports only 4 types of native Lepidoptera. . Zelkova supports none. Not one. Neither does Katsura or Metasequoia (dawn redwood). Others at the bottom of the list:
You certainly don't have to limit your choice of trees to the top 5. There are many trees high on the list that are widely available and have excellent ornamental value. Using Mr. Tallamy’s information, you can select for the characteristics you want in your new tree - leaf color, shade-giving, flowering, etc. while being sure that you are contributing to native habitat restoration. Do your research and bring informed choices to your local nursery owner. Ask them specifically for plants that will help restore the balance of native habitat.