Native And Exotic Plants In The Garden

Robin Lane-Fox wrote a bad tempered piece in last weekend’s FT about “exotic” v. “native” plants in the garden. He’s a respected plantsman, and so I wasn’t surprised to read he was against using native plants in the garden. I’m entirely sympathetic to this view; we are all masters and mistresses of our own gardens, and should do with them whatever we most enjoy. What did surprise me, however, is that he repeated the mantra that our wildlife was oblivious to the difference between (plain) native plants and attractive exotics. It’s true that disease threatens many of our “native” tree species. Sadly we would do well to think about alternatives for planting schemes. When we do, it would also be advisable to source them from UK nurseries so that a raft of new diseases doesn’t reach our shores. Improved biosecurity and more UK grown plants may be rare Brexit dividends.

Plants for Pollinators
It’s also right that “exotic” plants can be at least as beneficial to some wildlife as “native” plants – in some cases more so. Many bees, butterflies and other pollinators benefit from the longer and different flowering periods. There’s also the heavy nectar production of some attractive exotic flowers. We sell a fantastic seed mix from Flowerscapes which illustrates this. However – and this is a big but – it’s wrong to think of plants purely as providers of pollen and nectar. Even if we did there are bee species which are oligoleges – i.e. they feed from a specific plant genus or even single plant species.

Plant Food
I imagine there are no Brimstone butterflies in the doubtlessly beautiful Lane-Fox garden. Brimstone larvae dine exclusively on the leaves of one of our dullest looking shrubs, Buckthorns*. Many moth and butterfly larvae have similarly exclusive or nearly exclusive relationships with other native plants as do many thousands of insects. This includes the Blackthorn so disliked by Mr Lane-Fox.  Quercus robur – that’s the English oak, not your imported tat – supports up to 400 different species of herbivore insects in the UK. This kind of dependence is true of amphibians and mammals – no boring old hazel, no boring old dormice.

My own garden is less ornamental and more nature reserve, but that’s what gives me pleasure. It’s a smorgasbord of natives and exotics, vegetables and fruit trees. It’s also full of the munching, buzzing, swimming things which can’t survive in the surrounding farmland.

*Our bees also seem very partial to Purging Buckthorn‘s inconspicuous little flowers.

How to Become a Minor Deity

Still recovering from our older son George’s 18th I spent some down time in the garden today looking for butterflies. Small CopperAppropriately enough, as next week is Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count, sponsored by Marks and Spencer. I counted 6 species in half an hour loitering around the herb garden – Common Blue, Large White, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Small Copper, and Brimstone. Nothing unusual to get the hardened Lep excited, but really good news for me; when we moved here there were only Whites around, so we’ve done our bit to create good habitat for butterflies. I’ve also recently seen Six Spot Burnets and Large Skippers. In a very modest sort of way I feel like a kind of God; there’s a lot you can do to build up a good population of colonial species like these.

Alder buckthorn
In the herb garden Oregano seemed to be a particular magnet for the Browns, and in the borders Veronicastrum for the Brimstones.These guys are a particular success, as I hadn’t seen one around here at all until now. Why have they suddenly arrived? Because I planted a short stretch of Alder Buckthorn, their larval food plant, in a section of hedge. You can see how tasty it has proved. With butterflies it’s not just the nectar plants you need – it’s their whole habitat. When you get that right the effects are pretty much instantaneous.