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Wildlife gardening

Flowers for Wildlife

Flowers are very important to wildlife, providing vital food and shelter.
Insects on sunflower
Bright yellow flowers in the summer attract butterflies and bees. Seeds are popular with birds.

Flowers provide nectar, which is food for insects such as butterflies and bees; leaves, for caterpillars and beetles to hide in and eat; hollow stems for insects to hibernate in; night scent, which attracts moths (which attract bats); and seeds, a source of food for birds throughout the winter.

The organic grower encourages flowers, along with trees, shrubs and water, to provide a valuable and diverse ecosystem.

Many of our native creatures are also predators of garden pests. Did you know that a ground beetle eats slugs? And a family of blue tits can eat 100,000 aphids a year? Natural pest control is an essential aspect of organic gardening.

Below is a selection of useful flowering plants - including weeds, grasses, and wildflowers - to attract a diversity of wildlife to your garden. Most are native. Some, such as Michaelmas Daisy and Poached Egg plant, are non-native but easy to grow, and provide useful food early and late in the year. See also How to grow Flowers the organic way, which includes a helpful guide to making a wildflower area.

Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara. Native. Perennial weed.
Bright yellow, early spring flowering, dandelion-like flowers. Seeds are loved by birds. It is worth keeping a few of these weeds, but their deep rooting rhizomes can become troublesome.
Grows in most soils.

Cornflower, Centaurea cyanus. Native. Annual
Beautiful blue flowers in summer attract hoverflies and parasitic wasps (see Beneficial Insects). Seeds are loved by birds. Needs full sun.
Grows in most soils preferring neutral to acid.

Cowslip, Primula veris. Native. Perennial
Delicate yellow flowers appear in the spring, popular with bees. Foliage provides food for butterflies such as the Duke of Burgundy Fritillary. Sun/partial shade.
Prefers neutral to alkaline soils.

Cranesbill, Geranium pratense. Native. Perennial
Blue/purple flowers in the summer. Foliage is food for butterfly larvae such as Brown Argus.
Prefers rich, moisture-retentive soil.

Hemp agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum. Native. Perennial
Pale mauve flowers are attractive to many insects, and birds.
Grows in damp ground, are especially useful for growing on banks of ponds and streams.

Evening primrose, Oenothera biennis. Native. Biennial
Tall-growing plant with pale yellow flowers, highly perfumed at night. Seeds are attractive to birds, flowers to night moths.
Grows in most soils.

Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare. Native. Perennial
Umbel of scented yellow flowers is especially attractive to hoverflies, parasitic wasps, and bees throughout the summer. (See Beneficial Insects). Seeds are popular with birds, and hollow stems offer hibernation sites for insects, such as the ladybird.
Grows in most soils.

Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea. Native. Biennial/perennial
Tall spire of purple flowers in late spring/late summer are popular with bees. Suitable for a shady area.
Prefers nutrient-rich, moist soils.

Forget-me-not, Myosotis arvensis. Native. Annual
Pale blue flowers favoured by bees. Birds such as the bullfinch enjoy the seeds.
Prefers damp soil conditions.

Grasses, e.g. cocksfoot, Yorkshire fog. Native. Perennials
Caterpillars of butterflies, such as Speckled Wood and Scotch Argus, feed on the leaves. Tussocks also provide a habitat for beetles, spiders, frogs, and toads.
Suitable in any type of well-drained soil, preferring full sun.

Honesty, Lunaria annua. Non-native. Biennial
Purple flowers followed by easily recognised silver coin like seed-pods that last all winter. Birds such as the bullfinch feed on seeds.
Can grow in semi-shade and in most soils

Michaelmas daisy, Aster spp. Non-native. Perennial
Purple to pink flowers attract butterflies, bees, and hoverflies in the autumn. Britain’s only native aster, Aster tripolium has pale mauve flowers and is suitable for salt marsh sites.
Grows in most soils.

Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica. Native. Perennial
Provides food for the early nettle aphid and therefore ladybirds. Caterpillar of the small tortoiseshell butterfly eat the foliage before pupating. Can grow in semi shade
Grow in most soils.

Poached egg flower, Limnanthes douglasii. Non-native. Annual (pictured) Bright yellow, white edged flowers; very attractive to insects, and can flower for nearly twelve months of the year. Also useful as winter ground cover.
Prefers well-drained soils.

Primrose, Primula vulgaris. Native. Perennial
Pale yellow flowers appear in the spring and are an early source of nectar for bees. Leaves are food for butterflies such as Duke of Burgundy Fritillary. Can grow in full sun or semi-shade.
Grows well in nutrient-rich, moist soil, neutral to acid.

Goldenrod, Solidago virgaurea. Native. Perennial
Flowers are attractive to many insects. Common on heaths and dry banks.
Grows well in most soils.

Sunflower, Helianthus annuus. Non-native. Annual
Bright yellow flowers in the summer attract butterflies and bees. Seeds are popular with birds. Large seed heads can be stored for use in winter. Requires full sun.
Grows in fertile, well-draining soil.

Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum. Native. Biennial (pictured) Pale mauve flowers July – August. Bumblebees and other insects feed on the pollen. Tall, striking dried flower heads provide seeds throughout the winter for birds, especially goldfinches.
Will grow in most soils including stream banks, neutral to alkaline.

Thrift, Armeria maritime. Native. Perennial
Pale pink flowers are popular with bees, flowering from March to September. Useful for rock gardens, dry stone walls, and sink beds. Prefers full sun.
Requires well-drained, poor soil.

Tobacco, Nicotiana sp. Non-native. Mostly annuals.
Several species are available, and many are night scented. Popular with butterflies and night flying moths, including the Convolvulus hawkmoth. Can grow in light shade to full sun.
Will grow in most soils.

Violet, Viola odorata. Native. Perennial
Food for butterflies including the High Brown Fritillary. Prefers woodland semi-shady sites.
Moist soil with plenty of organic matter. Neutral to alkaline.

Wallflower, Erysimum cheiri. Naturalised, short-lived perennial.
Seeds are popular with birds. The scented flowers provide nectar to many insects in early spring. Full sun.
Prefers well-drained, poor soil, neutral to alkaline.

Stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus. Native. Perennial
Pale green flowers from January to March are important for early bees.
Prefers semi-shade and well-drained alkaline soils.

Best for butterflies

  • Red admiral – mainly common nettle (Urtica dioica).
  • Peacock – mainly common nettle (Urtica dioica) Brimstone – buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica); alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus).
  • Painted lady – thistles (Cirsium spp. and Carduus spp.); mallows (Malva spp.); common nettle (Urtica dioica), viper’s-bugloss (Echium vulgare) Comma – common nettle (Urtica dioica); hop (Humulus lupulus); elm (Ulmus spp.)
  • Green-veined white – many plants including garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata); cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis); hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale); watercress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum); charlock (Sinapis arvensis); large bittercress (C. amara); wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea); wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum); nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus).
  • Small tortoiseshell – mainly common nettle (Urtica dioica)
  • Large white – mainly cultivated cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli etc (Brassica oleracea); oil seed rape (Brassica napus); nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus); wild mignonette (Reseda lutea); sea kale (Crambe maritima)
  • Small white – mainly cultivated cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli etc (Brassica oleracea); nasturtium (Tropaeoleum majus)
  • Orange-tip (rarer in gardens) – cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis); garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
  • Speckled wood – false brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum); cock’s-foot (Dactylis glomerata); Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus); common couch (Elytrigia repens)
  • Meadow brown – grasses including fescues (Festuca spp); bents (Agrostis spp); meadow-grasses (Poa spp); cock’s-foot (Dactylis glomerata); downy oat-grass (Helictotrichon pubescens); false brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum).
  • Small copper – common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and sheep’s sorrel (R. acetosella) are the main foodplants. Broad-leaved dock (R. obtusifolius) may be occasionally used
  • Holly blue – many shrubs including holly (Ilex aquifolium); ivy (Hedera helix); spindle (Euonymus europaeus); dogwoods (Cornus spp); snowberries (Symphoricarpos spp); gorse (Ulex spp); bramble (Rubus fruticosus)
  • Common blue – mainly common bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus); greater bird’s-foot trefoil (L. pedunculatus); black medick (Medicago lupulina); common restharrow (Ononis repens); white clover (Trifolium repens); lesser trefoil (T. dubium).