10 native plants to grow
to help bees, butterflies and other insects
Growing plenty of native plants can boost biodiversity in gardens and community green spaces. We suggest 10 native plants that are fantastic for insects
Growing native plants in gardens and community green spaces can really boost biodiversity. Plants support all sorts of insect, bird and mammal species – and it makes sense that animals that have lived alongside, and relied upon, certain plants for millennia will thrive more when those plants are available in abundance.
Native plants are also uniquely adapted to thrive in the particular climate and conditions of a country or geographic region. Some plants have developed in a specific way to attract certain insects for pollination – with petal shape, colour and scent all designed to draw them in. Honeysuckle, for example, releases its strongest scent at night, and so attracts moths and other night-flying insects.
There are some insects that are particularly dependent on native plants – such as yellow loosestrife bees, that feed mostly on nectar from yellow loosestrife plants.
And many butterfly species have a limited range of plants that their larvae feed on. Duke of Burgundy butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves of cowslips and primroses, while holly blues prefer holly and ivy as a larval food source. Nettles are the main food plant for lots of butterflies, including comma, red admiral and painted lady; and brambles are important for brimstone and speckled wood butterflies.
In turn, insects can support plant populations too. The rare bilberry bumblebee, for instance, has helped keep the bilberry plant alive for centuries through pollination.
The defines a native plant as 'either a plant that arrived naturally in Britain and Ireland since the end of the last glaciation (i.e. without the assistance of humans) or one that was already present (i.e. it persisted during the last Ice Age)'.
found that including as many native plants as possible in gardens and green spaces was the best way to support pollinating insects and other wildlife. Native plants were found to be marginally better at supporting invertebrates than non-natives.
However, this doesn't mean that all non-natives are bad. In fact, some of our best loved garden plants fall into the non-native category and can be highly beneficial for pollinators and other insects – and many traditional British plants that have been around for hundreds of years aren't technically native.
Lavender, for example, is believed to have been introduced to Britain by the Romans, and sunflowers were brought into the country from North America in the 1500s. Both of these plants produce nectar-rich flowers that are fantastic for bumblebees and butterflies.
So, the best way to help all sorts of species is to create densely planted, nectar-rich spaces, that incorporate plenty of native plants – but it's okay to include some non-native garden favourites, too.
Here are a few suggestions for native plants to grow in gardens and community green spaces. We selected these plants with the help of the selection tool. This indicates whether or not a plant is native, and gives helpful information about planting, positioning and flowering times.
Flowering from May until September, this large white daisy used to be abundant in traditional meadows across the UK, but is now more often seen along road verges. It's one of the wildflowers that might appear in your lawn if you let the grass grow long. Bees, butterflies and hoverflies are attracted to the nectar-rich yellow centres.
Also called ajuga reptans, this low-growing plant produces spikes of purple-blue flowers. It thrives in partial shade and has a long flowering season, from March to July. Bugle is an excellent source of nectar for bees, butterflies and hoverflies.
A fragrant climber that smells strongest at night, honeysuckle is much-loved by moths, including the fascinating hummingbird hawk moth. During the day it also attracts bumblebees and butterflies. In the wild it can sometimes be seen scrambling through hedgerows. There are some non-native varieties of honeysuckle, so look out for lonicera periclymenum, the UK's native variety, when buying plants.
Bluebells appear in late April and May, carpeting ancient woodlands and woodland edges with fragrant, blue flowers. These attract woodland butterflies, bees and hoverflies. If buying bluebell bulbs or plants for the garden, ensure you buy the native (common) variety – and avoid the non-native Spanish bluebell. Spanish bluebells were introduced to the UK as an ornamental garden plant during Victorian times, but have since escaped into the wild – and could pose a threat to our native species, as they spread rapidly and compete for light and space.
Foxgloves flower in summer, providing pollen for bees – and watching a bumblebee disappear into the tubular flowers and come out covered in yellow dust is a delight. All parts of the foxglove plant are poisonous when consumed – so keep an eye on young children if you have foxgloves growing in your garden.
A useful native hedging plant or small tree which provides food for more than 150 different insect species. It's an important food plant for many butterfly and moth species. Flowers – known as May Blossom – appear in May, offering nectar to pollinating insects.
Dandelions are loved by bees, bumblebees and butterflies, and are about the easiest wildflower to cultivate – just leave a patch of grass unmown for a couple of weeks, and they should appear. They have a long flowering season, from March to October, and are particularly useful early in spring when there aren't a lot of other nectar-rich blooms about. The name comes from 'dent de lion', French for 'lion's tooth' – perhaps referring to the jagged shape of the leaf edges.
Cowslips flower in April and May, and are a useful source of nectar for brimstones and other butterflies that emerge early in spring. Carpets of yellow cowslips were once a common sight in hay meadows and along hedgerows – but, as these habitats have been in severe decline since the mid 20th century, they are now rarely seen.
Flowering in July and August, the flowerheads of teasels produce hundreds of tiny nectar-rich blooms which are highly attractive to bumblebees. After flowering, the sturdy seed heads and stems provide shelter for insects over winter. Keep dead stems in situ for as long as possible – at least until spring – and pile up any pruned stems in a quiet corner, to continue to provide a habitat for invertebrates and other creatures.
Little Green Space is a non-profit project sharing solutions to the nature and climate crises, and offering inspiration for a greener lifestyle. If you like our content, please help keep us going with a small donation!
Little Green Space May 2023