Hawthorn, Crategus monogyna, in flower at woodland edge. Coombes Valley RSPB reserve.

Best garden shrubs

Our recommendations for shrubs that can make great habitats for wildlife in your garden.

Berberis - Berberis spp

While not always the prettiest of shrubs, berberis (also known as 'barberry') are hardy and tolerate all but dry soils, and provide valuable ground cover for birds, as well as berries.

One of the more attractive garden varieties is Berberis darwinii, which has bright orange flowers in mid-spring. An evergreen, it prefers full sun and a moist soil, growing slowly to around 3 m.

It looks best planted in a group with other shrubs. Berberis x stenophylla has smaller leaves and tall arching branches, and makes a good informal hedge, providing good nesting sites for birds. The purple-leaved Berberis thunbergii loses its leaves in winter. Look for Berberis thunbergii atropurpurea 'Nana' if you want to grow an attractive prickly hedge. Berberis thunbergii and Berberis aggregata can provide berries into autumn and winter. 

Animals that benefit: Birds are attracted to the berries, whilst the thorns provide a barrier for safe nesting sites.

When will I see it? It varies depending on species, but it generally flowers between April and May.

Bramble - Rubus fruticosa

This scrambling shrub, also known as 'blackberry', is a real must in a wildlife garden. Its flowers provide nectar and pollen for many insects, it bears fruit in late summer and autumn, and offers good cover all year round. 

It has arching stems armed with hooked thorns that help it to scramble over anything. When the tip of a stem droops to the ground, it takes root, sending up a new plant. Brambles thrive in most soils and seem happy to grow in the sun or in partial or full shade. 

They can be extremely invasive (and rock hard), so need regular pruning to keep them in check.

Where will I see it? Most woodlands, hedgerows, scrubby areas and on waste ground.

When will I see it? It can be seen all year around, but you can see it's small, white or pink flowers from May to September, and the common purplish-black berries between August and October.

Animals that benefit:

  • Hundreds of creatures use brambles at different times of the year. 
  • Insects visit the flowers for pollen and nectar, including bumblebees, honey bees, hoverflies, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies and lacewings.
  • Spiders spin webs to catch the bounty of visiting insects.
  • Moths such as buff arches, peach blossom and fox moths lay their eggs on bramble as it is their larval foodplant.
  • Blackbirds, thrushes, chaffinches, starlings, robins, pheasants, foxes, mice and other small mammals eat the fruits.
  • Robins, wrens, thrushes, blackbirds, warblers and finches will nest in bramble and small mammals use it for protection from predators.
Bramble branch, RSPB Bowling Green Marsh Nature Reserve

Cornelian cherry - Cornus mas

A member of the dogwood family, cornelian cherry will grow well in most soils, sun or part-shade, and up to 5 to 8 metres in height. 

The cornelian cherry is as hardy and similar in appearance to hazel in the summer. It often looks good planted at the back of a border next to evergreens, such as holly, which enhance its pale yellow flowers in winter.

When can I see it? It's delicate yellow flowers open on bare stems in late winter. In warm summers it produces large crops of fruit.

Animals that benefit: The juicy red fruits are popular with birds in summer.

Dogwood - Cornus sanguinea

The native dogwood Cornus sanguinea which has red and yellow stems, brings welcome colour to a winter garden, as does the red-stemmed C. alba.

Cornus alba 'Elegantissima' has variegated leaves that will brighten up the shrub border in summer. Cornus mas and C. racemosa are others to look out for.

You will need to cut the stems of dogwoods back hard every other year in early spring to promote autumn colour and stop them from growing too large.

If you have room, grow them alongside our native silver birch, Betula pendula, for a great colour combination.

When can I see it? You can see bunches of small, round black berries, turning glossy as they ripen in August and September.

Animals that benefit: Robins and mistle thrushes will eat the clusters of berries.

Dogwood at Saltholme RSPB reserve, near Middlesbrough

Guelder rose - Viburnum opulus

As it tends to spread, a controllable variety for the garden is Viburnum opulus 'Compactum', which colours well in September. It grows up to 1.5 metres tall and wide.

You'll find several other kinds of non-native viburnum for sale in plant centres, both evergreen and deciduous, and most find favour with birds because of their berries. 

Viburnum tinus 'Eve Price' is an evergreen and has dense dark green foliage, flowering over a long period from late winter to spring.

The pink flower buds open to tiny, star-shaped white flowers, carried in flattened heads, followed by small dark blue-black fruits. It can also be grown as an informal hedge and is tolerant of a fair amount of shade.

What does it look like? It has lacy white flower caps, and hanging bunches of bright red berries.

Animals that benefit: Guelder rose berries are popular with bullfinches and mistle thrushes.

Hawthorn - Crataegus monogyna

Hawthorn is probably the commonest hedgerow shrub, and can be found throughout the UK. It provides food for more than 150 different insect species, so is a very valuable addition to any wildlife garden.

It has lobed leaves and is covered with clusters of flowers in May. By autumn the flowers have turned into the red berries beloved by birds. It has long, sharp thorns and as a hedge forms a very secure barrier. Hawthorn is a deciduous species and its young leaves have a distinct 'nutty' flavour.

It tolerates a wide variety of conditions, including polluted and exposed sites. The other kind of British native hawthorn is Crataegus laevigata and you will find various garden varieties, including C. laevigata, 'Pauls Scarlet', which grows into an attractive small tree. 

When buying a hawthorn, make sure it comes from nursery-grown British stock. Often they've been imported from eastern Europe and may have been taken from the wild. Continental varieties flower at different times and are more prone to mildew than native strains.

When can I see it? You can see hawthorn's small, strongly scented white and pink flowers in May and June. It's red berries, or 'haws', appear from September onwards.

Animals that benefit

  • It supports many insect species, e.g. hawthorn shield bug, earwig, common flower bug, bumblebees, cockchafers.
  • The above are eaten by predators, e.g. Devil's coach horse, violet ground beetle, harvestman, garden spider, wren, blue tit.
  • Blackbirds and other thrushes (including redwings and fieldfares), greenfinches, yellowhammers, chaffinches, starlings and many other birds relish the haws in autumn.
  • Small mammals, birds, insects and other invertebrates nest, roost and/or hibernate here, eg wood mouse, wren, robin, blackbird, song thrush, brimstone and peacock butterflies, lacewing, ladybird, slow worm, common toad, etc.
Hawthorn, Crategus monogyna, in flower at woodland edge. Coombes Valley RSPB reserve.

Spindleberry - Euonymus europaeus

The common spindleberry is a large native shrub that is found in hedgerows and scrub, particularly on alkaline soils. Its narrow leaves turn reddish purple in autumn and it has unusual-shaped, bright pink fruits. Look for Euonymus europaeus 'Red Cascade' which is richly fruiting, and grows up to around 2 metres tall.

You could create a border for autumn and winter interest by planting it next to red-stemmed cornus, with which it often grows naturally in the wild.

If you garden in the north on neutral or acid soils, a good alternative is the rowan or mountain ash, which also has good autumn colour and berries.

What does it look like? It has delicate pink flowers, and unusual-shaped bright pink fruits.