Best plants for wildlife


Just as we have our favourite foods – some we gorge on, some we wouldn’t touch with a bargepole – so it is the same for wildlife and the plants they eat (or avoid!) in the garden. Knowing which plants to grow will make a huge difference to the wildlife you see. For example, when it comes to bees, which are so useful for pollinating plants, there are a few hundred types of garden flower they will visit but a few thousand they won’t! And there are some that are so tasty that the bees just flock to them.

In particular, of the millions of bedding plants that are sold each year, such as pansies, begonias and petunias, almost none have got any value for wildlife because they have had all the nectar and pollen bred out of them. Butterflies are especially picky – it seems that their long tongues, which are like curled drinking straws, are only suitable for certain flower shapes.

So, here is my top picks of different types of plants you can make a beeline for next time you go to a garden centre or shop online. I have chosen those that are easy to grow, look great and are easy to get hold of. I’ve given the scientific name where garden centres often list it as that.


Flowers for butterflies

  • Marjoram - a short herb for a dry sunny spot that can be covered in butterflies in July.
  • Verbena bonariensis - tall wiry stems topped with lilac flower heads.
  • Iceplant Sedum spectabile - late summe heads in pink atop fleshy stems and leaves, perfect for Red Admirals.
  • Lavender - plant in a dry spot where its roots won’t sit in the damp. Plant several together for best impact.
  • Michaelmas daisies - late nectar in September and October. Choose single-flowered varieties, those with just a single ring of petals.

Beware: Buddleias are the most famous butterfly plant but can be very invasive, seeding everywhere.

Short flowers for bees

  • Cranesbills e.g. Rozanne - plentiful blue flowers borne month after month.
  • Lungworts Pulmonaria - early spring flowers give food for early bees, and the spotted leaves look great for the rest of the year.
  • Cirsium rivulare - like a thistle with a beautiful flower and without the thorns.
  • Thyme - barely a few centimetres high, ideal for pots, cracks in paving and very sunny spots in herb gardens.
  • Scorpionweed - a fast-growing annual whose seed is cheap and can be scattered in any empty soil.

Tall flowers for bees

  • Globe thistle Echinops - bumblebees crawl for ages over the circular flowerheads
  • Giant Scabious Cephalaria - another plants that bumblebees can’t seem to resist.
  • Alliums - plant as bulbs for great globes of purple flowers on slender stems.
  • Helenium - massed flowerheads in reds and oranges with a central raised disc full of nectar.
  • Foxglove Digitalis purpurea - a native woodland plant – watch the bumblebees clamber deep inside the tubular flowers.

Berry-bearing trees and shrubs

  • Guelder Rose - relatively small native shrub with bright red berries in autumn, loved by Bullfinches.
  • Rowan (Mountain Ash) Sorbus aucuparia - medium-sized native tree, plus there is a wide range of other Sorbus trees available to buy, almost all with copious amounts of berries in autumn.
  • Berberis - often used for hedging, with bees visiting the flowers and then dark berries in autumn.
  • Dogwood - native small tree, with white flowers in summer and small black berries in autumn.
  • Crab Apple - many varieties, with small fruit that, although not technically berries, are loved by thrushes just as much.

Pond plants for small ponds

  • Hornwort Ceratophyllum demersum - the best underwater weed which will host loads of pondlife.
  • Marsh Marigold - radiant yellow sunshine blooms in spring.
  • Water-milfoils Myriophyllum spicatum and Myriophyllum verticillatum - two native underwater pondweeds, almost as good as Hornwort.
  • Water-plantain - slender upright stems with small, pink, three-petalled flowers
  • Water Mint - trails through the pond, sending up upright stems with whorls of pale pink flowerheads.

Beware: Non-native pondweeds, which can be incredibly invasive. Always buy pond plants from a reputable seller.

RSPB Gardening for Wildlife

Adrian’s award-winning book, RSPB Gardening for Wildlife, available from the RSPB online shop, includes a catalogue of over 500 garden plants for wildlife.