Native versus non-native plants

Posted: Friday 1 June 2012
by Kate Bradbury

Many non-native plants are fantastic for many insect species, including common species of butterfly, honeybees and the 10 or so wild bees we might see in our gardens.

The short-haired bumblebee feeding on red clover, photo courtesy of Dr Ben Darvill, Bumblebee Conservation Trust

In his speech at the Chelsea Flower Show last week, Professor James Hitchmough suggested that the current focus on growing native plants in public places could be a disaster for horticulture. Indeed, he said, “horticulture is in danger of going extinct”.

Exactly a week later, 51 short-haired bumblebee queens were released into Dungeness from Sweden, having themselves been declared extinct in the UK in 2000. Why did they become extinct? Because of a lack of native plants.

One of the many victims of post-war agricultural intensification, the short-haired bumblebee is a specialist feeder, feeding primarily on white deadnettle, bird’s foot trefoil, knapweed, red clover and viper’s bugloss. These ‘weeds’ have virtually been eradicated from our countryside and were never much of a hit with gardeners. Lack of food meant the bee was foraging – and living – in increasingly small spaces. Colonies became inbred and the species inevitably died out.

But it’s back now, in Dungeness where it was last seen, foraging on the white deadnettle, bird’s foot trefoil, knapweed, red clover and viper’s bugloss farmers and landowners have grown especially for its arrival. In the years conservation bodies have been preparing the area for its return, five other rare bumblebee species have expanded their ranges, along with countless other insects, birds and mammals. This small area of Kent is now a haven for rare wildlife.

So what's this got to do with horticulture and public spaces? Well, with increasing pressure to make farmland as productive as possible, our gardens and public spaces are becoming wildlife refuges. Professor Hitchmough agrees. He reminded his audience that, put together, our gardens take up more space than all of Britian's nature reserves, and went on to say that insects can thrive on non-native plants, which help extend the season of nectar for pollinators.

This is true: many non-native plants are fantastic for many insect species, including common species of butterfly, honeybees and the 10 or so wild bees we might see in our gardens. What's more, our gardens can provide corridors of nectar and pollen between nature reserves, helping to link them together to provide a broader range of habitats.

But there are some rare species – like our short-haired bumble, some butterflies and other insects – that are more fussy, and rely on certain native plants for their survival. In the last 70 years we’ve lost 97 per cent of our flower-rich grassland but, in theory, if we all grew a few choice natives and let our lawns grow longer to let wildflowers flourish, as well as growing wildlife-friendly non-natives, then insect extinctions would be less likely.

Hitchmough also said that gardeners shouldn’t separate natives from non-natives, but grow them together instead. This is good advice – I grow red clover in my borders and I know a very famous gardener who does the same – right in front of his delphiniums. And I don’t know about his garden, but in mine, as soon as the red clover flowers, the bumblebees ignore everything else. Loaded with powerful proteins, its pollen is the bumblebee equivalent of a super-food: a wonder plant that makes baby grubs grow up into big, strong, healthy bees.

So I would like to see even more focus on native plants in gardens and public spaces. It won't make horticulture extinct, but it will ensure the survival of much of our wildlife.

To find out how bee-friendly your garden is, use the Bumblebee Conservation Trust's Bee kind tool.

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Talkback: Native versus non-native plants
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donutsmrs 01/06/2012 at 18:49

I try and grow a lot of flowers for bees, and this year I have grown forget me nots and egg plant. I hate seeing front gardens that have been concreted over and no plants at all, doing this doesn't help the wild life at all. We can all do our bit for the Bee, after all the Bee does so much for us.

oldchippy 01/06/2012 at 22:32

Hi Kate our local park (nonsuch park) is managed jointly by Epsom & Ewell/Sutton councils it is left to wildlife with just the paths cut ,We also have Warren farm now owned by The woodland trust,in all about 220 acres so there is lots of wild flowers and grass,We also have lots of birds bees and butterflies not to mention bugs,There is a great mix of trees of great age as well as newly planted,There is a place for all who want to use it.

happymarion 02/06/2012 at 10:47

For the whole of Jubilee Week-end we are having a celebration og Bristol Flora at the Briatol University botanic garden. I have never seen the collection of Avon and Cheddar Gorge, Mendips and Quantocks plants in their purpose built habitats look so beautiful. If they don't entice people to give a home to our lovely native flora, nothing will. and what better way to celebrate her Majesty's Jubilee than to encourage the wildlife that feeds the nation.

diggingdoris 02/06/2012 at 17:34

Not sure it's a native but my ceanothus is massed with blue flowers and has a constant hum as there must be 50 bees on it at any one time. My blue scabious has the biggest bumble bees on it that I have ever seen! The aquilegias are fantastic this year as well and always being visited by the bees, and the lithodora on the rockery is covered with them as well. Are any of these plants native to us?

Berghill 02/06/2012 at 20:46

I started to make a list of non-native plants and realised very quicklu that it was easier to make one of native plants. Probably less than 5% (that sis a guess) of the things we grow are native to this country, Sadly it became an island before most European species managed to recolonise it after the last ice age.

Even the majority of our food crops are not native, wheat, barley, carrots, sprouts................all brought in.

Insects do not care from whence cometh the pollen, just as long as it is there. So double flowers are out if you want bees etc.

The most popular plant in our garden for Bees is a Lonicera alseuosmoides. Nothing much to look at or smell, but I counted over 500 bees on it one day last year.

Ceanothus by the way is native to California.

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