My book Wild about Weeds looks at the wildlife value of many weeds I feel are some of the most beautiful, concentrating on how to integrate these wild flower wonders into stylish gardens – it’s a design book. Readers have asked me a lot about the best native weeds for wildlife, which I could write about at length, this page lists a small number of them to get us started.
Important warning! It’s important to grow some native plants in gardens but in gardens plants native to a particular region aren’t always better than exotic plants, it’s important to understand the full picture. Outside of gardens in the wild is another discussion. In reality, there are some insects that rely solely on one species of plant which may be native or it may have been introduced at some point in the last thousand years. For some insects a native plant may be essential as they evolved with it, only able to feed from it, and that partnership must be protected, especially in the wild. For other insects, introduced plants play a vital role too. For example, many of the UK’s butterfly and moth caterpillars rely on stinging nettles which aren’t native, but no one is about to eradicate stinging nettles any time soon because so much wildlife is now so dependent. In your garden it is a balance, include natives wherever you can and insect friendly exotics too. The correct way of looking at this is that ecosystems around the world are highly complex, there are hundreds of factors to consider and there is no simple concept as ‘one thing is better than another’. The answer then, if you are keen to help wildlife in your garden (as opposed to in the wild) and understand the complex world of wild plants in natural ecosystems, is to do what humans do best: keep learning about all of the different plants, their growth and reproductive behaviours and their connections with wildlife. Then make thousands of decisions across your lifetime to carefully adjust your garden accordingly to the benefit of all wildlife.
1) White dead nettle, Lamium album
One of my favourite plants is also favourite with long tongued insects including bumblebees and mason bees, and it flowers for so much of the year too, making extra beneficial.
2) Common knapweed, Centaurea nigra
I never see knapweed without bees, butterflies or hoverflies on it – I love it for that as much as the pop of purple.
3) Common mallow, Malva sylvestris
Most people and publications rate this more as a wildflower than a week so it didn’t make the main list of weeds in Wild about Weeds, that said it is one of the biggest weeds on my allotment. It is also one of the busiest with insects.
4) Herb robert, Geranium robertianum
I honestly don’t know which plonker first listed this as a weed to get rid of in publications, it’s one of the most beautiful and tough plants for dry shade. Incredibly useful for long periods of flowering for insects in these otherwise empty areas.
5) Lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria
I see lesser celandine popping up on social media all the time with gardeners wanting to get rid of this weed. Well, tough luck chums because it is one of the most impossible to eradicate and who would want to? It’s gorgeous and essential for insects in late-winter to early-spring when times are tough for them.
6) Tufted vetch, Vicia cracca
Tufted vetch is such a weed in gardens that I wanted to include it in Wild about Weeds but most people and publications know it only as a wildflower (this imaginary scale between weed and wildflower is so bonkers). I grow it in our garden and as you can see, insects love it. I love it too, so beautiful, even if it does want to takeover the entire border.
7) Field and hedge bindweed
Convulvulus arvensis (the pretty pink and white mini one) and Calystegia sepium (the big brute white flowered one) are a pain, though much less so C. arvensis. However, they are used by so much wildlife I have to love them, especially with the white plume moth – which is one of my absolute favourite insects – and bees. I also happen to think all bindweeds can actually be very attractive, if only they didn’t strangle and smother everything else.
8) Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum
Teasel, you beauty. Loved by bees and then later, their seeds are loved by birds. And their leaves are eaten a lot too.
9) Yarrow, Achillea millefolium
Another of my favourite plants which didn’t make it in the final cut of Wild about Weeds’ top weeds because most people and publications rated it more as a wildflower. Which is strange because it’s just as weedy in lawns as daisies and dandelions. Anyway, this is such an essential native weed for wildlife because it flowers for so long, especially in the driest months, and is great for short tongued insects such as butterflies and hoverflies.
10) Common daisies, Bellis perennis
I love the common daisy, its flowers are so perfect and they make lawns look better. Their flowers are one of those essentials for insects as they’re around all through the year, and because they’re low, are great for tired bees that have just woken up or are exhausted from foraging.