Hedera helix (common ivy) is a marmite plant. But love it or hate it, ivy has been proven to be fantastic for wildlife year round. Ivy can keep buildings cool in the heat of summer and insulate them in winter.
Butterflies such as Brimstones, Painted Ladies and Commas like to spend the winter hiding under its leaves. It is a valuable source of nectar and sustenance from September to November, when other food sources are hard to find. Walk near any flowering ivy on a sunny day in late summer and early autumn, and you will hear a cacophony of buzzing bees attracted to the rich nectar and pollen. Holly Blue, Peacocks, Red Admirals and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies all feed from it, as well as hoverflies and other insects. This is a crucial time, when the insects are trying to build up stores for the winter and feed their young. Research has shown that almost 90% of all pollen collected by honey bees in autumn comes from ivy*.
Ivy is a keystone species in our native ecosystems, but only mature ivy produces flowers. Many ivies are cut back and removed in gardens before they reach maturity. This means their wildlife value is limited. Ivy-covered walls are a favourite nesting site and shelter for wrens and blackbirds. In winter the small black ivy berries provide excellent nourishment for birds. They are a particular favourite of blackbirds, but are also eaten by many others.
Corylus avellana (hazel) is a fantastic wildlife resource. It has been grown and coppiced by humans over thousands of years. These managed woodlands have created wildflower-rich habitats that support many species of butterfly, particularly fritillaries. Deer also love the new growth on coppiced plants. Coppiced hazel can provide shelter for ground-nesting birds, such as the nightingale, nightjar, yellowhammer and willow warbler.
As garden plants, the male yellow catkins are a precious source of early pollen for bees. Hazelnuts are eaten by dormice to fatten up before hibernating. In spring the leaves are a good source of caterpillars, which dormice also eat. Over 70 butterfly and moth caterpillars feed on hazel leaves, including the large emerald, small white wave, barred umber and nut-tree tussock. The trunks are often covered in mosses, liverworts and lichens, and there are many fungi associated with it too. Fiery milkcap fungus grows in the soil beneath.
Crataegus monogyna (common hawthorn) is a fantastic tree for wildlife. Hundreds of species of insect live on the tree, enjoying the leaves, bark and the nectar and pollen in the blossom. Dormice apparently enjoy eating the flowers too! Its dense thorny shape provides an excellent habitat for nesting birds, who also enjoy eating its nutritious haws (fruits).
Its thorny stems make it an ideal boundary hedge, which will help keep unwelcome visitors out of the garden. Trained as a hedge, it will also support other creatures. Small mammals will make their home underneath it or use the hedge line to travel around, safely out of the prying eyes of predators such as owls.
Digitalis purpurea (foxgloves) are classic cottage garden flowering plants loved by pollinators, especially bumblebees. They will grow in sun and shade and provide valuable vertical accents in a flower bed. Foxgloves are biennial and grow easily from seed. This means they form a rosette of leaves the first year and flower then die the second year. Leave them to set seed and more will grow. It is easy to move self-sown seedlings in early autumn and replant them where you want flowers the following year.
Primula vulgaris and Primula veris
Primula vulgaris (common primrose) and Primula veris (cowslips) are easy to grow hedgerow and meadow plants which shine in spring. They are important for wildlife as their flowers are an early source of nectar for various insects. Bees and butterflies such as the Brimstone and Small Tortoiseshell will visit them. Cowslips are also a food plant for the endangered Duke of Burgundy butterfly.
Armeria maritima (thrift, sea pinks) are low-growing natives. As their name suggests they can put up with a lot of buffeting from salty sea-breezes. Their pretty flowers provide nectar for pollinators and insects in places where other plants may struggle to grow. They have thin grass-like leaves and pompom clusters of flowers in pink or white shades, held up on stems above the foliage.
Viburnum opulus (gelder rose) is known for attracting all sorts of wildlife. It is a caterpillar food plant, bears lovely white nectar rich flowers and provides shelter and berries for birds. It is a hardy shrub suited to woodland, garden borders and as part of a mixed hedge. It will shelter and provide habitat for insects, birds and small mammals. It has a long season of interest for us humans. It bears large panicles of white flowers loved by pollinators, from spring to summer. They are followed by red berries and wonderful autumn colour. There is a more compact cultivar for small spaces: V. opulus ‘Compactum’. However if you want to attract pollinators, avoid the cultivar V. opulus ‘Roseum’. Although it is beautiful its flowers are sterile, have no nectar and it will not fruit.
Sambucaus nigra (elder) is a native shrub or tree found growing across the UK in hedgerows and woodland. It has nectar and pollen rich clusters of tiny flowers loved by pollinators. These are followed by black berries loved by birds and mammals such as dormice, rabbits and badgers. Its leaves are eaten by moth caterpillars. It makes a good wildlife hedge by providing shelter and habitat for insects, birds and small mammals.
Elder is also popular amongst foragers for its flowers which can easily be used to make delicious elderflower cordial (https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/homemade-elderflower-cordial) and flavoured gin. The berries can be cooked to make jams, flavoured vinegars and wine. Do not eat any part of the plant raw as it will be toxic. Cooking the berries for 45 minutes destroys the toxin.
Foeniculum vulgare (common fennel) is another native plant useful as a herb for cooking and a decorative garden plant. It grows to 1.8 metres, providing vertical accents to a border. Its flat topped clusters of yellow flowers are very attractive to hoverflies. Hoverflies are a vital pollinating insect. They carry pollen further distances than bees, pollinating more isolated plants and in harsher climates than bees. Many of their larvae also gobble up pests such as aphids, which bees do not. Hoverflies need open flowers with very accessible nectar and pollen. The flat topped flowers of fennel and achilleas are fantastic, but also useful are poppies and alliums. Just don’t mistake them for wasps – they have no sting.
By our resident horticultural expert