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Desert Gardening: Attracting Cardinals to Desert Gardens

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Bring showy red northern cardinals to your desert garden simply by planting things they like to eat.

A northern cardinal perches on an Arizona elephant tree.
The desert hackberry (Celtis pallida) produces excellent cardinal food.

If you live east of the 100th meridian, you might see the red flash of cardinal feathers often, but in the West, cardinals are quite uncommon. Their range in the western U.S. extends only from west Texas to extreme southern New Mexico to south and central Arizona. Like their namesake NFL franchise, cardinals find the desert a fine place to call home. Bring them close with plants they like to eat. Here are a few of the best:

The desert hackberry, shown here in a Tucson, Arizona landscape, takes up ample room.

The desert hackberry, one of our native shrubs, makes an excellent natural-looking hedge. But the plant also produces numerous orange berries that are excellent cardinal food. The semi-evergreen plant reaches 8 feet high by 10 feet wide, so allow enough room. You can get an idea of the size from the photo of the plant in habitat.

The wolfberry shrub is a good naturalistic hedge.

Another densely branched large shrub that grows into great cardinal habitat is the wolfberry (Lycium fremontii). This 10-ft-high shrub sports small, gray leaves; lavender flowers; and bright-red berries cardinals love. Like the desert hackberry it is a good naturalistic hedge. The berries are tasty--if the birds leave you any.

Seeds from sunflowers (heirloom Hopi Black Dye shown here) remain cardinals' meal of choice.

If the native shrubs don't cut it for you, resort to the cardinals' favorite food: sunflower seeds. You can either get a feeder or grow your own. The variety shown here is an heirloom variety, 'Hopi Black Dye'. While you wait for the seeds to mature, you get to look at the fantastically cheerful blooms of the sunflower.