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Thistle flower

Not weeds,

wildflowers!

Let's not call them weeds. Wildflowers such as dandelions, thistles and clover can really boost biodiversity – so let's give them a chance to grow!

Dandelions, buttercups, brambles, thistles, nettles – these so-called 'weeds' are often seen as a troublesome nuisance. But for pollinating insects, such as butterflies and bees, they can be a lifeline.


Wild, undisturbed areas where wildflowers are allowed to grow can also provide food and shelter for mammals, amphibians and birds too – so creating this type of habitat is an excellent way to increase biodiversity in a garden or community green space.


Road verges also have immense potential to become an important habitat for all sorts of wildlife. More than 700 different species of wild plants have been found on road verges in the UK – but as many councils frequently cut verges, some of these species are at risk of extinction.

Road verge with wildflowers

When it's safe to do so, and without impacting visibility for drivers, allowing verges to grow can result in swathes of colourful wildflowers – boosting biodiversity by supplying food and shelter for pollinators. They also become wildlife 'corridors', offering safe areas for animals to travel through.


Road verges packed with wildflowers are beneficial for humans too, creating beauty and a connection with nature on the daily commute or longer journeys.


Many councils are already allowing wildflowers to thrive on road verges, but 'neat and tidy' continues to be a priority for some. Plantlife's Road Verge Campaign is working to tackle this issue by calling on councils to manage road verges to help nature.

So, which wildflowers – let's not call them 'weeds' – should we be making space for in our gardens and communities? Here are a few of our favourites, and how they can benefit wildlife – and us.


Nettles

As humans we may associate them with painful stings, but for wildlife nettles are a 'super plant'. A single nettle patch can support over 40 species of insects, and nettles are particularly good for many butterfly and moth species.


Red admirals, peacocks and small tortoiseshells lay their eggs on nettles, with the leaves being a valuable source of food for the caterpillars. Aphids shelter in nettle patches, and this will attract ladybirds as well as insect-eating birds such as bluetits. In autumn, birds eat the seeds.

Bee on dandelion
Nettles

While the sting of nettles may be a negative for us, it can protect the insects that shelter on nettle leaves – the sting deters grazing animals. And where there are lots of insects, animals further up the food-chain – hedgehogs, frogs and toads for example – can also benefit.


The fresh, young tips of stinging nettles are edible for humans too – with a similar nutritional value to spinach, they're high in iron, magnesium and calcium. The acid that causes the nettle's sting is destroyed during cooking, so cooked nettles can be used as a substitute for spinach in risotto, soup or pesto. Just don't eat them raw, and be sure to wear gloves when harvesting your crop!


Dead nettles – distinguishable from stinging nettles by their white, red or yellow flowers – are also useful plants for pollinating insects. When allowed to, they thrive on roadside verges. As they have a long flowering season – from March to October, or even later – they offer a source of nectar for much of the year.

Dead nettles

The long-tubed flowers are good for long-tongued insects such as mason bees and some bumblebees. The leaves are a source of food for the caterpillars of several moth species.


And because dead nettles don't sting, they're good for growing in places where children play.


Clover

Clover can be white or red, and is often one of the first wildflowers to appear if you let the grass grow. It's also commonly seen in meadows, and along unmown roadside verges. The flowers appear between May and October.


White clover is a nectar-rich flower that's a good food source for all kinds of bumblebees and other pollinators. It has a relatively short flower tube, meaning the nectar is easily accessible for honeybees and short-tongued bumblebees. It also supports common blue butterflies, and the leaves are collected by wood mice.

Red clover

Red clover is also loved by bumblebees, honeybees and butterflies.


Because red clover fixes nitrogen into the soil, it's a useful plant for crop rotation in organic gardens too – when used as an overwintering green manure on vegetable beds it can enrich the soil.


Dandelions

It will be no surprise to our readers that we love dandelions. In fact, we think they're a 'super plant' – and so does the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, as highlighted on the charity's website and excellent Bee Kind app.


But sadly dandelions must be one of the least tolerated wildflowers in the UK. Many gardeners see the yellow flowers as a nuisance – especially when they show up in a neatly mown lawn.

Yellow dandelion flower

It's time to look at dandelions in a new light. Their cheerful blooms begin to appear in March, at a time when there's not a lot else in flower. If you think like a hungry bumblebee – emerging from hibernation and looking around for your next meal – that nectar-rich dandelion could be a literal life-saver. Dandelions continue to flower until at least October – so can also provide a late season boost for insects.


It's not just bumblebees that love dandelions – butterflies, hoverflies and other pollinators take advantage of the rich source of nectar. In fact, these wildflowers can support more than 50 insect species.


Birds like dandelions too. As the seed heads form, it's common to see goldfinches and house sparrows feeding on the seeds.


Cuckooflower

Cuckooflower – also known as lady's smock – thrives in damp places such as pond edges, wet grassland, and near streams. Its name comes from the time it flowers, in late April to early May – about the same time that the first cuckoo call of the year can be heard.

Orange tip butterfly on cuckooflower

Cuckooflower, with its delicate lilac flowers, is an essential larval food plant for orange-tip butterflies. Other butterfly species, as well as bees, are attracted by the nectar-rich flowers.


Oxeye daisies

Oxeye daisies – with their large, flat white flowers – are commonly seen on uncut road verges throughout summer. They may also appear in garden lawns that have been left to grow.

Ox-eye daisies

The petals are so bright that they can glow at night-time, giving the flowers their folk names of 'moon daisy' and 'moonpenny'.


Butterflies, bees and hoverflies love the nectar that can be found in the dozens of tiny yellow flowers that make up the sunny centres of oxeye daisies.


Thistles

There are several different species of thistle in the UK, and while some varieties can become invasive if not managed properly, all thistles have excellent wildlife value.


The purple flowers attract bees and butterflies – and the leaves of creeping thistle are a food source for many species of butterfly and moth, including painted ladies.

Tortoiseshell on thistle

Thistles create a micro-habitat for all kinds of invertebrates, with the prickly leaves offering protection from predators.


Over winter, their hollow stems provide shelter for hibernating insects.


Birds such as goldfinches and siskins feed on thistle seeds, and soft, fluffy thistledown is used to line nests.


Teasels

Teasels flower in July and August, and the purple conical flowers are visited by bees and bumblebees.

Burnet moth on a thistle flower
Teasel flower with bumblebees

It's in autumn though when teasels really start to shine for wildlife. The brown, spiky flower-heads and sturdy stems that remain after the plants have finished flowering provide a protective habitat for many over-wintering insects. So avoid cutting the dead stems down in autumn – and anyway, the architectural, spiky seed heads look attractive in the winter garden, especially when dusted with frost or snow.

Teasels in snow

Teasels provide food for birds too – goldfinches, in particular, love pecking out the seeds.


Let them grow

Having an undisturbed corner – where nettles, thistles and other wild plants can grow – is an easy and effective way to increase biodiversity.


As well attracting pollinating insects to the flowers and leaves, a wild corner is a good habitat for all sorts of other creatures, including hedgehogs and toads. If you still want to keep your garden looking tidy, the area can be hidden from view by a trellis or screen.

Grass verge filled with wildflowers

Also try leaving a patch of grass to grow long – it's another really easy way to increase biodiversity. Native wildflowers like buttercups, daisies, clover and dandelions are fantastic for pollinators, and can appear quite quickly if you don't mow. Long grass is also an excellent habitat for nesting bumblebees.

Little Green Space May 2021

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