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What does a bird eat? …Worms? Birdseed?

Most backyard birds eat a combination of seeds, berries and insects. In late spring and early summer, birds like cardinals, bluebirds and sparrows are busy filling the mouths of their babies with freshly caught bugs.

The pink allium flower forms tall, thin stalks topped with round, fragrant clusters of pink flowers-- popular with Shedd's bees!

It’s all about the caterpillars

A single breeding pair of chickadees needs to collect between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars to raise one clutch of chicks. Caterpillars, and thousands of other insects and animals, rely on plants to thrive, but not just any plants.

Native plants, or ones that are indigenous to a specific region, are most critical to supporting wildlife. They provide natural sources of food, cover and places to raise young. Even more so, keystone native plants play a crucial role in the way an ecosystem functions.

A caterpillar among green leaves.
A monarch butterfly on a tall cluster of purple flowers.

What is a keystone native plant?

Keystone native plants are integral to maintaining local biodiversity by providing critical food and shelter for many animal species. Without them, ecosystems radically change. Keystone native plants may support the local food web by being host plants for moth and butterfly larvae, a key food source for birds, by providing pollen and nectar for pollinators, or by producing fruit for birds and insects, or all three! What makes a plant a keystone native plant is the number of species it supports.

Chicago skyline viewed through wild flowers and plants in the foreground, blurred by the depth of field.

Wildlife on the move

Wildlife is experiencing ecological fragmentation, meaning that skyscrapers, urban and suburban development and sprawling agricultural landscapes are making travel from plant to plant difficult. Resources like food, shelter and host plants are too spread out and few and far between.

The migratory monarch butterfly, classified as endangered in July 2022, is one of the most infamous case studies of an animal impacted by fragmented resources on its journey from Mexico to Canada and back each year.

A horticulturist wearing a mask picks mums.

How can I help?

As super producers, keystone native plants provide “more bang for your buck” with less space. Even growing one plant on a balcony or in a window box can do a lot to bridge the gaps between resources for insects and birds.

Explore seven keystone native plants that could be perfectly suited for your home garden or nearest green space:

Lobed oak leaves glow in the sunlight.



Oaks support more life-forms than any other North American tree genus. There is a large diversity of oak species that all provide critical food and shelter for countless birds, insects and spiders, including 897 caterpillar species in the U.S. An oak can produce 3 million acorns in its lifetime, and a mature tree can drop as many as 700,000 leaves every year, which creates habitat for creatures on the ground. But an oak doesn’t need to reach hundreds of years old to provide exponential benefits to the ecosystem.
A butterfly rests on a round cluster of pink allium, sipping nectar from the fragrant flowers.
Round pink flowers grow in many shades of color.

Goldenrods (Solidago)

Species of goldenrods vary in height and shape, but their flowers remain a bright golden yellow. Goldenrods host 104 species of caterpillars and 42 pollen-specialist bee species. Field Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) can work well for those needing shorter plants, as it only grows 2 feet high. Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) is a great eye-catcher at 3 feet tall.
A sunflower with red and yellow petals.

Sunflower (Helianthus)

Sunflowers (Helianthus)

Sunflowers are both beautiful and excellent keystone native plants. Much of their growth is vertical, so less square footage is needed for sunflowers to thrive. More than 50 pollen-specialist bee species and 66 caterpillar species rely on plants in the genus Helianthus to survive.

A cluster of yellow flowers.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Black-eyed Susans are easily recognizable with bright yellow petals and a dark, cone-shaped center blooming between early summer and early fall. They tend to be low maintenance and quick growing plants perfect for beginners. Plants in the genus provide for 20 species of pollen specialist bees.

A monarch butterfly on clusters of pink flowers.

Joe-bye Weeds (Eutrochium maculatum)

Joe-Pye Weeds (Eutrochium maculatum) 

Joe-Pye Weeds aren’t weeds at all, but stately, hardy perennials that can grow to be over 6 feet tall with mostly purple flowers in large clusters atop the stems. Joe-Pye Weed has a sweet vanilla scent that is attractive to butterflies and other pollinators.

A bee sits on fluffy bright purple flowers.
A butterfly rests on a large white flower in Shedd's gardens.

Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) 

This keystone native plant is a perennial upright shrub that is host to 102 species of caterpillar. It thrives in moist or wet soil or near swamps, marshes, ditches and stream banks. Fragrant, single pink roses with yellow centers will bloom in summer.

A monarch butterfly sits on a flowering milkweed plant.

Milkweed (Asclepiadaceae)

Milkweed (Asclepiadaceae)  

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is sometimes called nature’s mega-food, providing for over 400 insects. Milkweeds are especially important because they are the larval host plant for monarch caterpillars. Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) grows very well in heavy clay soil and produces beautiful pink flowers atop 2- to 4-foot-tall stalks. Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) produces bright orange flowers on shorter stalks about 1 to 2 feet tall.

Ladybugs like the one shown on this blue sea holly eat aphids and other garden pests, and are a sign of a healthy garden.

These keystone native plants all have a home in Shedd’s gardens, with plans to plant even more keystone native species and expand public access to them as part of our Centennial Commitment.