Dear Readers, what follows is a very idiosyncratic list of my ‘favourite’ plants where pollinators are concerned. I expect a bit of controversy with some of them, but in all cases I have observed the comings and goings of various insects, and have noted that the flower in question is much appreciated. Onwards!
- Dandelion. I happen to love dandelions: they flower for most of the year, and are an invaluable source of early pollen, just when queen bumblebees and honeybees need the protein to rear their young ones. Plus, they always remind me of my husband’s father, Richard, who died on 11th May: the cemetery that he was buried in, Mount Pleasant in Toronto, was absolutely full to busting with dandelions in flower, and dandelion clocks, their seeds sailing away on the breeze. I thought it was one of the loveliest sights that I’d ever seen. Our local cemetery, St Pancras and Islington, can be just as pretty if the strimmers haven’t been too vigorous.
- Ivy. I know that it can damage brick work and pull down trees, but its Sputnik-shaped flowers are a late-summer feast for all manner of pollinators, including the newly-arrived ivy bee shown below. I have lost count of the number of species that I’ve seen feeding in autumn, when there is little else in flower.
3. Mahonia. What a spikey and unruly plant this is! I have a very sad specimen in a pot, which is basically just a stem with a crown of prickles on top. And yet, when it puts forth its few sad yellow flowers as early as January, I can bet that it will be visited by queen bumblebees popping out of hibernation in a warm spell, and the blue tits can often be seen flying off with the berries. Earlier this week a young squirrel was half way up the stem trying to get to the fruit, as the whole plant swung back and forth like a pendulum. I believe that it’s worth having for that early nectar and pollen, if for nothing else. Maybe hide it at the back of a bed somewhere if you’re dubious. Incidentally, the flowers smell rather lovely.
4. Scabious (of all kinds). This is a lovely little flower, and seems to be particularly favoured by butterflies. I can never get it to grow properly in my north-facing garden, but I’ve seen it positively covered in six-spot burnet moths in Austria. The garden varieties seem to be equally popular, but do let me know your experience…
5. Buddleia. I know, I know. The RHS is telling us not to plant it, the wildlife books are increasingly advising against it, and yet, for the few brief months when it is in flower it attracts pollinators of all kinds in abundance. And it smells like honey. And it grows alongside railway lines, forming a thicket of flowers in lilac and white and purple. I have two huge self-planted buddleia bushes in my front garden, and in August I sit at my desk with my binoculars and watch the butterflies come and go.
6. Cardoon, and thistles in general. I watched entranced at all the bees feeding from these cardoons in Regents Park, but thistles are almost always great for insects. In Austria I look out for the beetles on the melancholy thistles, and for a while I had some very fine thistles in the garden. I have watched bees fall asleep in the flowers as if overcome with all the nectar.
7.Hemp agrimony. What a tatty flower this is: it becomes unkempt very quickly and the wild variety goes from a kind of vague pinkish colour to a whitish grey within about ten minutes. However, it loves the damp areas around my pond, and because it is so tall it makes watching the bees a delight, because I don’t even have to bend over or change my glasses. I love the way that the bigger bees seem to fumble through the flowers as if desperate to find the nectar. Much loved by hoverflies and smaller bees as well.
8. Meadowsweet. I grew this for the first time last year because it was another waterside plant that was supposed to be good for pollinators, and I was delighted – again, hoverflies seemed to love it (I think all those small open flowers make life easy for them), but it also attracted my first ever gatekeeper butterfly. It looks as if it’s going to be even more impressive this year.
9. Foxglove. I’m not sure there’s anything more redolent of a drowsy summer day than the muffled sound of a bumblebee inside a foxglove flower. I sometimes wonder if they’re relieved when they finally escape!
10. Bittersweet. I love this plant, which has self-seeded in the middle of my honeysuckle, and which provides more year-round entertainment than anything that I’ve ever planted. In the autumn the birds seek out the berries, but in the summer the air is filled with the high-pitched sound of common carder bees buzz-pollinating the flowers. I have rarely seen anything as fascinating as the way that they vibrate the blooms in order to persuade them to drop the pollen out of the cones in the centre. This is the way that other members of the family, such as tomatoes and potatoes, are pollinated too.
And here’s a little film of them doing their work.
So there we go, with my top ten. But I am thinking that this is a most incomplete list. Where are the nettles (food for the caterpillars of many moth and butterfly species)? Where are the umbellifers, like wild carrot and queen anne’s lace? Where are the brambles, probably the most useful plants of all? And more to the point, having shown a picture of comfrey at the top of the page, why is it not included (oops). I can see that this list is just the start, and I’d love to hear from you. What are the most valuable plants in your garden, from a wildlife point of view? I’m sure that I’ve always got room to pop another one in…