Should you only grow native plants?

By Marc Carlton and Steve Head                     Reviewed by Andrew Salisbury



The best evidence so far is for insect pollinators. You may have noticed that herbaceous borders, herb gardens and cottage gardens can be full of bees, hoverflies and butterflies without recourse to any native species of flowers at all.

The plants for bugs experiment showed that over all there was very little difference in pollinator abundance on native plants and non-native garden plants from the northern hemisphere. Plants from the southern hemisphere although attracting fewer pollinators overall, were valuable as late flowering plants.

Pollinating insects have no knowledge or concept of the country of origin of the flowers, nor whether they are classified as ‘wild’ or ‘cultivated’.  The insects’ priority is simply to find a rich, accessible food as quickly and efficiently as possible. Since garden varieties are bred to be smothered with flowers, these may be preferred by pollinating insects to less showy native relatives.



Pollinating insects have no knowledge or concept of the country of origin of the flowers, nor whether they are classified as ‘wild’ or ‘cultivated’.  The insects’ priority is simply to find a rich, accessible food as quickly and efficiently as possible. Since garden varieties are bred to be smothered with flowers, these may be preferred by pollinating insects to less showy native relatives.Many kinds of ‘non-native’ flowers are likely to provide a resource just as well as, or better than, ‘native’ flowers.  A more relevant criterion from the insects’ point of view is the accessibility of food. You can find much more on this issue, and pollination in general, on our Plants for Pollinators page.

As more research is published and other information becomes available, we will update the information about the native and non-native garden plants that can provide food for a wide range of wildlife at all life stages.  Some of these, like Hemp Agrimony, which is a superb plant for pollinators, are not only good for wildlife, but garden-worthy as well.  When information becomes available we plan to suggest lists of garden-worthy native plants that really could help garden wildlife in addition to pollinators, provided of course that the species you are keen to attract actually live in your area!



Should you only grow native plants?

By Marc Carlton and Steve Head Reviewed by Andrew Salisbury



Search
If you read most older books on wildlife gardening you will usually find yourself strongly advised to plant native wildflowers plants to bring in more wildlife.  Here is a typical example:

“A fundamental part of responsible gardening involves planting native species… Birds are far more likely to flock to a garden full of familiar insects and plants, than a garden full of exotic delights”  [Birds in Your Garden, RHS/Wildlife Trusts, Think Books 2007]

The evidence however is not clear. 

Many wildlife gardeners choose to grow native plants not just for the potential wildlife value but for their intrinsic beauty and interest. The Wildlife Gardening Forum applauds their choice, but if you prefer more ‘conventional’ planting, you will enjoy masses of wildlife, and it is not clear if planting purely natives really is the best way of encouraging wildlife in gardens.

For starters the terms ‘wild’ and ‘native’, are often used interchangeably, are difficult to define and controversial; we explore the issues further in our page on the native or non-native debate.

The Wildlife Gardening Forum worked with the Royal Horticultural Society on what was probably the  most ambitious and carefully designed experiment to test garden wildlife response to native and non-native species to date, and you can read more at the page on the Plants for Bugs project.

All land based animal life ultimately relies on plants, directly as food (herbivores), indirectly as predators feeding on the herbivores, and once dead, plant material is fed upon by detritivores.  Even the structure of plants provides a home for predators such as spiders.  See our page on garden food webs for more information.

The plants for bugs experiment has shown that native plantings will support marginally higher numbers of invertebrates than non-native plants. However, regardless of ‘nativeness’ the more plant material growing in a garden, the greater abundance of invertebrate wildlife it will support. However we still know very little about the value of individual plant species and the species of animals they may support in the garden.

Native plants are necessary to encourage some animals that have specialist diets into gardens Some insects (for example the larvae of most British butterflies, such as the holly blue which relies on ivy or holly as a larva) are specific to a small number of native species of food plant, although many others are much less picky.  So native plants are important for some wildlife, but we lack good studies on how or if garden plants closely related to native plants can be used, or of the other factors such as size of the planted area that would be needed for native plants to be able to encourage these species into gardens. Much more work is needed.

The photograph shows Marc Carlton's garden pollinator border which is planted with insect-friendly plants from European origins. Many of these are close relatives of our native species.

The best evidence so far is for insect pollinators. You may have noticed that herbaceous borders, herb gardens and cottage gardens can be full of bees, hoverflies and butterflies without recourse to any native species of flowers at all.

The plants for bugs experiment showed that over all there was very little difference in pollinator abundance on native plants and non-native garden plants from the northern hemisphere. Plants from the southern hemisphere although attracting fewer pollinators overall, were valuable as late flowering plants.

Pollinating insects have no knowledge or concept of the country of origin of the flowers, nor whether they are classified as ‘wild’ or ‘cultivated’.  The insects’ priority is simply to find a rich, accessible food as quickly and efficiently as possible. Since garden varieties are bred to be smothered with flowers, these may be preferred by pollinating insects to less showy native relatives.

Many kinds of ‘non-native’ flowers provide a resource just as well as, or better than, ‘native’ flowers.  A more relevant criterion from the insects’ point of view is the accessibility of food. You can find much more on this issue, and pollination in general, on our Plants for Pollinators page.

As we build up more information, we will add material on this website about the native (and non-native substitute) plants that can provide food for caterpillars.  Some of these, like Hemp Agrimony are not only good for wildlife, but garden-worthy as well.  We hope to be able to suggest lists of native plants that really could help herbivorous garden wildlife, provided of course that the species you are keen to attract do live in your area.

Finally, many wildlife gardeners choose to grow native wildflowers for their undoubted intrinsic beauty and interest. The Wildlife Gardening Forum applauds their choice, but the message is that if you prefer more conventional planting, you will still enjoy masses of wildlife, and possibly rather more pollinators over the whole flowering season.


If you read most older books on wildlife gardening you will usually find yourself strongly advised to plant native wildflowers plants to bring in more wildlife.  Here is a typical example:

“A fundamental part of responsible gardening involves planting native species… Birds are far more likely to flock to a garden full of familiar insects and plants, than a garden full of exotic delights”  [Birds in Your Garden, RHS/Wildlife Trusts, Think Books 2007]

The evidence however is not clear. 

Many wildlife gardeners choose to grow native plants not just for the potential wildlife value but for their intrinsic beauty and interest. The Wildlife Gardening Forum applauds their choice, but if you prefer more ‘conventional’ planting, you will enjoy masses of wildlife, and it is not clear if planting purely natives really is the best way of encouraging wildlife in gardens.

For starters the terms ‘wild’ and ‘native’, are often used interchangeably, are difficult to define and controversial; we explore the issues further in our page on the native or non-native debate.

The Wildlife Gardening Forum worked with the Royal Horticultural Society on what was probably the  most ambitious and carefully designed experiment to test garden wildlife response to native and non-native species to date, and you can read more at the page on the Plants for Bugs project.

All land based animal life ultimately relies on plants, directly as food (herbivores), indirectly as predators feeding on the herbivores, and once dead, plant material is fed upon by detritivores.  Even the structure of plants provides a home for predators such as spiders.  See our page on garden food webs for more information.

The plants for bugs experiment has shown that native plantings will support marginally higher numbers of invertebrates than non-native plants. However, regardless of ‘nativeness’ the more plant material growing in a garden, the greater abundance of invertebrate wildlife it will support. However we still know very little about the value of individual plant species and the species of animals they may support in the garden.

Native plants are necessary to encourage some animals that have specialist diets into gardens Some insects (for example the larvae of most British butterflies, such as the holly blue which relies on ivy or holly as a larva) are specific to a small number of native species of food plant, although many others are much less picky.  So native plants are important for some wildlife, but we lack good studies on how or if garden plants closely related to native plants can be used, or of the other factors such as size of the planted area that would be needed for native plants to be able to encourage these species into gardens. Much more work is needed.

The photograph shows Marc Carlton's garden pollinator border which is planted with insect-friendly plants from European origins. Many of these are close relatives of our native species.

The best evidence so far is for insect pollinators. You may have noticed that herbaceous borders, herb gardens and cottage gardens can be full of bees, hoverflies and butterflies without recourse to any native species of flowers at all.

The plants for bugs experiment showed that over all there was very little difference in pollinator abundance on native plants and non-native garden plants from the northern hemisphere. Plants from the southern hemisphere although attracting fewer pollinators overall, were valuable as late flowering plants.