Guides

Trees and shrubs for wildlife

Planting trees in your garden is one of the best ways of enhancing the wildlife value of your garden. A single tree can support hundreds of different species of insect, in turn feeding birds, bats and other animals, which may also feast upon any nuts and berries produced.

It is often assumed that native trees support the most species, compared to exotics. It is true that some of our native trees, like silver birch and holly, are a perfect haven for birds and insects, but plenty of non-native and small-sized trees can also be invaluable for wildlife. If you want to attract birds, bees and butterflies, you would consider some of the trees on this list.

Silver birch (Betula pendula)

Silver birch hosts more than 300 insect species and is the best tree for moth larvae. The catkins provide food for birds, being especially liked by redpolls and tits, and woodpeckers like to nest in the trunk. Plenty of light reaches the ground through the airy canopy, allowing other plants to grow underneath. If you don’t have space for a full size native birch, you could consider the shorter Young’s weeping birch or the pyramid birch.

Hawthorn and thorn trees (Crataegus)

The native hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) provides food for hundreds of insect species, including the hawthorn shield bug and the orchard ermine moth, while its dense foliage provides excellent habitat for birds. Dormice like to eat the May flowers, which also provide nectar for bees. Thrushes, finches, starlings and small mammals eat the haws in autumn. If you prefer something a bit more ornamental, try the Crimson hawthorn (Crataegus Crimson Cloud) or Frosted thorn (Crataegus prunifolia Splendens).

Crab apple (Malus)

The pretty spring blossom on crab apples is not only heaven to look at, but an irresistable draw for pollinators too. Later on, the bright coloured fruits provide food for birds and mammals including voles and badgers (if you’ve spared any from the crab apple jelly!). Many caterpillars eat its leaves, including those of the stunning hawk moth. The tree can also play host to mistletoe. A wildlife winner.

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia and varieties)

Rowan berries make excellent autumn food for blackbirds, redstarts, fieldfares and plenty more. Go for the red-berried varieties – birds prefer them. In addition, the foliage is nice and airy, meaning light can filter through to the ground, where more wildlife friendly plants can grow.

Hazel (Corylus)

Up to 106 insect species and 68 species of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) have been found to live on hazel. Moreover, the nuts are eaten by the likes of dormice, wood mice, jays, woodpeckers and others. You can tell if a dormouse has been calling by the shape of the nibble on the hazel shell – they leave a smooth round hole. Squirrels and woodpeckers, meanwhile, tend to break the shell. If you have a shady spot to fill, hazel will happily take up residence and give you the delight of catkins in spring, heralding in the end of winter. The purple leaved varieties such as Corylus maxima Purpurea offer a dramatic splash of colour and corkscrew hazel (C. avellana Contorta) something a bit different.

Cotoneaster cornubia

As a semi-evergreen, Cotoneaster cornubia will provide shelter at a time of year when many other branches are bare, while the bright red berries are a source of winter nutrition for many birds. A vigorous grower, this also makes an excellent screening tree. The leaves turn purple-bronze when the weather gets cool before springing back to life with fresh new leaves and creamy flowers as the weather warms up.

Holly (Ilex)

The insignificant spring flowers on holly draw in a wide range of insects, including the Holly Blue butterfly, which lays its eggs at the base of the flower buds. The caterpillars bulk up on holly leaves, usually high up on the plant, before turning into this pretty blue-winged insect. Holly also makes ideal shelter for small birds, offering them protection against predators. The mistle thrush is a great fan of the berries.

Buddleja (butterfly bush)

If you want to attract lots of butterflies and perhaps even the exotic-looking hummingbird hawkmoth, Buddleja is a must. The panicles of nectar-rich flowers are magnets for numerous species of nectar-hungry Lepidoptera and bees. Buddleja can be very vigorous – just cut it back in late winter or early spring, down to a few inches from the base of the last year’s growth. This framework will readily sprout new branches. And for most wildlife potential, leave some of the dead flowerheads on the bush so birds can eat the seeds. 

Euonymus europaeus (spindle)

The technicolour fruits of the spindle tree are highly nutritious for birds and the spectacular autumn colour is food for the soul. Grow as a tree or a bush, or make it an ingredient of your mixed hedge. Other brilliant choices for a wildlife hedge include elder (Sambucus nigra), wild privet (Ligustrum vulgare) and guelder rose (Viburnum opulus).

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