Although far from being a new talking point, the focus on attracting pollinators into gardens seems to be gathering more and more momentum. This is a good thing, as the benefits are indisputable on a number of levels. Economically, the success of many hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of crops depends on pollinating insects. In terms of our ecosystem, pollinators are essential in terms of maintaining the food chain, pollinating the hedgerows which support birds and many other animals, and helping the upkeep of the UK’s declining population of wildflowers.
But, in some corners, there also seems to be a sense of a growing sentiment that “native is always best”, sometimes almost to the point that there should be some sort of guilt to be felt about using non-native plants in the context of helping pollinators. That this is somehow a betrayal of British bees and butterflies.
Above: A proposal for the International Flag of Planet Earth, by Oskar Pernefeldt, a Swedish Designer. The 7 rings forming a flower represent life on Earth. One of the uses of the flag would be for astronauts to wear this as representatives of our planet, rather than individual nations. The other purpose is “to remind the people of Earth that we share this planet, no matter of national boundaries. That we should take care of each other and the planet we live on.”
Clearly introducing invasive species which could endanger native flora or fauna isn’t clever, but this isn’t really what we are talking about. A number of studies, including one by the RHS, suggest that rather than worry about whether plants are native or non-native, a better strategy is to focus on the following points:
- Plant as wide a range of plants as possible, and ones that will flower across a long period throughout the year
- If possible avoid plants with double flowers, which often hinder access and/or have less nectar
- Don’t use pesticides on plants with open flowers (avoid them altogether if possible)
Surely following this advice would lead to a more interesting garden as well. Who wouldn’t want a longer display of flowers, more wildlife and a more interesting range of plants in their garden? Whilst I think using native species is always a good idea, at least this seems to mean we don’t need to become too uptight about the whole subject.
Recommended plants to attract pollinators and provide interest across a number of months.
- Alliums. Alliums are invaluable additions to the garden. They come in a range of sizes and heights, and it’s easy to plant a selection that will flower from May through to July, with the added bonus of interesting seed heads once the flowers fade. Cheap as chips and will multiply as they self-seed. My favourites to look up include Allium christophii, Allium sphaerocephalon and Allium stipitatum ‘Violet Beauty”.
2. Echinops ritro ‘Veitch’s Blue’. Easy to grow and with interesting flowers and foliage, this globe thistle is an absolute magnet for bees and butterflies. It flowers from mid to late summer and can get fairly big, so give it a bit of space.
3. Astrantias. There are many, many desirable varieties of this excellent plant. Many will flower non-stop from May to October (or even November), and will be happy in sun, some shade and heavy soils. (They do better on a moisture retentive soil). Look out for Astrantia major ‘Jumble Hole’ with huge amounts of green tipped, silver-white flowers all year long. A sultry alternative would be Astrantia ‘Moulin Rouge’ with purplish-red flowers.
4. Lavender. For Lavender to thrive you need to give it lots of sun, and (ideally alkaline) well-drained soil. It won’t live forever, and can get woody and rubbish-looking if you ignore it, but otherwise it’s excellent for path edges and it definitely attracts bees. Choose Lavendula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’ as a tougher and more compact than some others. (In the spirit of the native/non-native debate, a report published in the journal of the British Ecology Society showed that a Lavender being either modified, or exotic, had little bearing on things – they all attract pollinators.)
If in doubt, look out for the RHS “perfect for pollinators” badge, which indicates that the plant you are buying is suitable for attracting pollinating insects, and these are found on plants originating from all around the world:
Or, stick to purple plants. Apparently bees can more easily see the colour purple than any other!
Some links for further info and plant ideas:
Quantifying variation among garden plants in attractiveness to bees and other flower-visiting insects – http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2435.12178/full
Lewis Williams Gardens, Garden Designer in West Yorkshire. Covering Bradford, Leeds, Harrogate, Skipton, Ilkley and Halifax.