Ripe berries of the Rowan tree at Culbin Forest, Scotland

Best trees for the garden

A wide variety of trees provide food and habitat for wildlife. Here are profiles for a few highly recommended species suitable for planting in gardens.

Birch - Betula spp

Height and spread: 25 m (80 ft) x 12 m (40 ft).

Conditions: Prefers acidic soils. Either dry, sandy or poor, well-drained soil, in partial shade to full sun.

Features: Around 60 different species and two native varieties: silver birch, Betula pendula and downy birch, B. pubescens. The latter prefers moister soils and is less frequent in gardens. The distinctive catkin flowers form in early spring.

Propagation and maintenance: Seeds readily in autumn on disturbed soils adjacent to a nearby seed source. Alternatively collect and sow seeds from local trees. Also grows quickly from bare rooted ‘whips’.

Benefits: 521 species of invertebrate feed on it, of which 112 are exclusive. Standing dead or decaying birches (where safe to leave), are important for fungi and bird nests. The insects and prolific amount of seed is attractive to a number of birds. Its bark and young, fresh leaves are attractive.

Holly - Ilex aquifolium

Height and spread: Variable in height, ranging from 2.5-25 m (8-80 ft) x 2-6 m (6-20 ft).

Conditions: Hardy and tolerant of most soils, particularly those that are well drained and slightly acidic. Grows in full sun or partial shade. The variegated ‘golden king’ cultivar is best in full sun to retain its colour.

Features: There are more than 400 hundred species of holly with either prickly, spiny, or smooth edged leaves. Most are evergreen, but some are deciduous. The most frequently used varieties: common holly, Ilex aquifolium and ‘golden king’, I. x altaclerensis range from 20-25 m (70-80 ft) x 8-15 m (25-50 ft). Only female trees produce berries.

Propagation and maintenance: Seeds can be sown in a cold frame in autumn, germination may be slow, taking up to three years. Buying plants from a nursery is often best. Planting or transplanting is best carried out in late winter. May be grown as a specimen tree in a large shrub bed, as a shrub, or in a hedge, although regular clipping can prevent fruiting.

Benefits: Provides shelter and protection and berries during winter. It is the food plant for first generation holly blue butterflies in spring. 36 species of insect have been recorded feeding on holly (two are exclusive).

Holly at RSPB's Flatford Wildlife Garden

Rowan (mountain ash) - Sorbus aucuparia

Height and spread: Variable. Some species reach up to 20 m (70 ft) x 10 m (30 ft). May reach a height and spread of 15 m x 7 m (50 ft x 22 ft).

Conditions: Hardy and grows in full sun or dappled light. Prefers moderately fertile, well drained humus rich soils. Members of the whitebeam family prefer chalkier soils. Those Sorbus with pinnate type leaves (like an ash tress), prefer moist, but well drained, neutral or slightly acidic soils.

Features: The Sorbus family has more than 100 species of deciduous trees and shrubs. Leaves are ornate, being either pinnate or lobed. Some varieties of whitebeam have dark upper sides and pale grey-green undersides to their leaves. Many varieties are suitable for smaller gardens.

Propagation and maintenance: Seeds may be grown in containers in a cold frame from autumn. Alternatively, cuttings can be taken in early summer, although successful rooting is poor. It is generally more effective to purchase either whips or smaller ‘feathered’ trees for quicker, effective results. Pruning is seldom, if at all, necessary.

Benefits: Berries are quickly taken by blackbirds and small flocks of starlings and their recently fledged young. 160 species of insect have been recorded feeding on members of the family - 14 of those are exclusive. The Sorbus family is attractive to aphids and sawflies - important food for chicks.

Roe deer under rowan tree

Crab apple - Malus sylvestris

Crab apples, which have attractive pink or white blossom in spring, make ideal trees for the garden, producing colourful fruits in autumn, much loved by birds. Malus sylvestris is native to the UK, but there are many exotic and hybrid species. 

Crab apples are hardy and grow in most soils, and do best in full sun. One of the best ornamental crabs is Malus 'John Downie', a spreading tree that grows up to 8 metres tall and has slightly elongated, red-flushed orange crab apples in the autumn.

Malus 'Red Sentinel' has clusters of cherry-sized red fruits. Purple-leaved varieties such as M. 'Royalty' and M. x purpurea 'Lemoinei' can be used to contrast with the greens of other trees in summer.

When can I see it? You can see its attractive pink or white blossom in spring, and the colourful apple-like fruits in autumn.

Animals that benefit: Birds will feed on the fruit, particularly robins, starlings, greenfinches and thrushes. The colourful flowers will attract bees in spring. The native crab apple can be home to over 90 insect species.