Together, our gardens are a huge living landscape and a really important habitat for a range of insects, birds and mammals. The way we choose to manage our green spaces can make a big difference to the natural world. By growing wildlife-friendly plants you can attract more animals to your garden and create a haven for nature.
Wildlife gardening expert Dave Goulson shares some of the best plants you can grow to create a wildlife-friendly garden and give pollinators and other species a helping hand.
More wildlife gardening content:
- How to make your garden wildlife-friendly
- How to make a bee hotel (pictured)
- How to make a wildlife pond
- News (2019): New study on the best garden plants for pollinators
Does nectar provide more than energy?
Nectar is a plant’s way of bribing insects and other animals to pollinate it or protect it against herbivores. The sugar-rich fluid is indeed packed with energy, but it also contains other much-sought-after compounds. The caffeine contained in citrus tree nectar boosts honeybees’ memories, for instance, making the insects more likely to visit similar flowers. And research has found that several nectar components were found to reduce gut parasite load in bumblebees. Intriguingly, a chemical component of rhododendron nectar is actually toxic to honeybees but not bumblebees, perhaps because it pays for the plants to encourage only certain, specialist pollinators.
This Q&A originally appeared in BBC Wildlife Magazine, and was answered by Stuart Blackman.
Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare)
A hairy plant with dense spikes of bright blue, funnel-shaped flowers.
Plant range: Europe; scattered distribution in the UK, most common in the south
Attracts: buff-tailed and red-tailed bumblebees, large skipper and painted lady butterflies, honeybees and red mason bees
Where to plant: full sun; well-drained soil; loam, chalk, sandy
Flowers: June to August (purple flowers)
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
Perhaps the single best plant you can grow for bumblebees – they absolutely love it. It also makes a great liquid manure.
Plant range: Europe and temperate Asia; widespread in the UK but most common in England
Where to plant: full sun or partial shade; moist but well-drained or poorly drained soil; sand, chalk, loam, clay
Flowers: May to July (purple, pink or cream flowers)
Meadow crane’s-bill (Geranium pratense)
Almost all of the perennial hardy geraniums available for gardens are great plants for pollinators but Dave Goulson’s favourite is the meadow crane’s-bill.
Plant range: Europe to Himalaya
Attracts: many species of bee, including buff-tailed and red-tailed bumblebees, and honeybees
Where to plant: full sun or partial shade; moist but well-drained/well-drained soil; sand, chalk, loam, clay
Flowers: June to September (blue, purple flowers)
Alive with bees all summer long, and extremely easy to grow.
Plant range: southern Europe
Attracts: bees, butterflies and other pollinators; its leaves are used as a caterpillar foodplant
Where to plant: full sun or partial shade; well-drained soil; sand, chalk, loam
Flowers: June to September
Wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare)
Very attractive to a broad range of insects, including butterflies, bees, beetles and hoverflies.
Plant range: Europe; North Africa; quite common in the south of England, but largely absent from central, northern and western Scotland
Attracts: bees, moths and other pollinators
Where to plant: full sun; well-drained soil; sand, loam, chalk
Flowers: June to September (pink flowers)
Garden angelica (Angelica archangelica)
Tall plants with giant, plate-like flowers that are enjoyed by numerous small solitary bees, wasps, beetles and hoverflies.
Plant range: Europe, Asia, Northern hemisphere
Attracts: pollinators; seeds are eaten by birds
Where to plant: partial shade; moist but well-drained/poorly drained soil; clay, chalk, loam
Flowers: June and July (green flowers)
Field scabious (Knautia arvensis)
A beautiful native wildflower, with mauve powder-puff flowers in the summer months, attractive to many different insects.
Plant range: Europe, Asia
Attracts: bees and butterflies
Where to plant: full sun; well-drained soil; loam, sand, chalk
Flowers: July to September (blue/purple flowers)
Dahlia (single varieties, Dahlia)
Overlooked as plants for pollinators, the single-flowered dahlias are hugely attractive to bees and butterflies because they are more accessible and have a long-flowering period.
Attracts: bees, butterflies and other pollinators
Where to plant: full sun; moist but well-drained/well-drained soil; loam, clay, sand
Flowers: July to September/October
According to the RHS, more than 140 species of insect and 17 species of bird feed on this climber in Britain, and countless others appreciate its evergreen shelter.
Attracts: birds and a huge variety of insects
Where to plant: partially shaded; well-drained/moist but well-drained soil; sand, clay, chalk, loam
Flowers: September to November (yellow-green flowers)
Bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)
Member of the pea family with lots of interesting common names, including ‘eggs and bacon’ and ‘hen and chickens’, which refer to the yellow flowers and reddish buds.
Attracts: bees and larval food for some moths
Where to plant: full sun; well-drained soil; loam, chalk, sand
Flowers: May to September (yellow flowers)
Dog-rose (Rosa canina)
This scrambling shrub has an attractive burst of lightly scented, flowers in summer, followed by a show of bright red hips in autumn.
Plant range: Europe, N Africa, SW Asia
Attracts: bees, butterflies, moths and birds. Also provides shelter for birds and small mammals
Where to plant: full sun; moist to well-drained soil; chalk, clay, sand, loam
Flowers: June to August (pale pink/white flowers)
Wild cherry tree (Prunus avium)
Planted as an ornamental tree (be aware that Prunus avium can reach 20m in height or more so is suited to large gardens), this species also grows wild in woods and hedges. Its red fruits are edible cherries.
Plant range: Europe to Asia Minor, Caucasus, W Siberia
Attracts: bees, beneficial insects, birds, butterflies/moths and other pollinators. Has seeds for birds and mammals and is a caterpillar food plant
Where to plant: full sun; moist but well-drained/well-drained soil; sand, clay, chalk, loam
Flowers: March and April (white flowers)
Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor)
At the height of summer, the tiny seeds rattling in their brown pods give this wildflower its name. Because yellow rattle feeds off the nutrients in the roots of nearby grasses, it is used to turn grassland back to meadow.
Plant range: N Hemisphere
Attracts: bumblebees; foodplant for the larvae of two rare moths, including the grass rivulet
Where to plant: grassland of low to medium fertility; full sun; well-drained/moist but well-drained soil; chalk, clay, sand, loam
Flowers: May to September (yellow flowers)
Wild carrot (Daucus carota)
Widespread perennial umbellifer of grasslands. After flowering, it develops a concave seedhead.
Plant range: Europe to India
Attracts: bees, beetles and hoverflies
Where to plant: full sun; well-drained soil; sand, chalk, loam
Flowers: June to August (white flowers)
Common knapweed (Centaurea nigra)
The bright pink-purple flowers of common knapweed are actually composite flower heads made up of many small florets.
Plant range: NW to C Europe
Attracts: butterflies, including common blue, marbled white and meadow brown
Where to plant: full sun/partial shade; moist but well-drained soil; chalk, clay, sand, loam
Flowers: June to September (pink/purple flowers)
Naturally found in grassy places and waste ground and an important food source for many insects.
Plant range: Northern Hemisphere
Attracts: bumblebees, solitary bees, honeybees, hoverflies and beetles; a larval food source for moths
Where to plant: full sun/partial shade; clay, loam, chalk soil
Flowers: April to June (yellow flowers)
Common/English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)
These sweet-smelling flowers nod or droop to one side of the flowering stem (known as an inflorescence) and have creamy white-coloured pollen inside.
Plant range: W Europe
Attracts: butterflies, bees and hoverflies
Where to plant: partial shade, well-drained/moist but well-drained soil; chalk, clay, sand, loam
Flowers: April to May (blue flowers)
Main image: Small tortoiseshell butterfly on ivy flowers. © Estuary Pig/Getty