Native and non-native plants for pollinators

To help better our understanding of how to garden for wildlife, the RHS led research into whether native or non-native plants best support garden invertebrates. Here we look at the findings on planting for pollinating insects such as bees, butterflies and hoverflies.

Hoverfly on Verbena bonariensis
Hoverfly on Verbena bonariensis

Quick facts

Five steps to planting for pollinators:
  1. Include a wide range of plants from different parts of the world
  2. Choose more plants from Britain and the northern hemisphere than the southern hemisphere
  3. Pack in lots of flowering plants
  4. Observe which plants attract pollinators and plant more of them
  5. Select plants for all seasons
An abundance of pollinators and bugs of all types equates to healthy garden ecology


What are native and non-native plants?

Gardeners in the UK often use a combination of plants from around the world.

Some plants grown by gardeners are classed as native, meaning they occur naturally in the Britain (i.e. have not been introduced by humans). Other garden plants originate from regions outside Britain, perhaps only from elsewhere in Europe or similar temperate regions of Asia or North America. Or they may originate from southerly regions such as South Africa or Australia where the climate and habitat may be very different from that in Britain. We have such a rich choice of plants in UK horticulture, thanks in no small part to the legacy of plant hunters who brought back many new and interesting plants from their travels.

When talking about plant origins we have divided them into three categories - one native and two non-native;

  • British (native)
  • Northern hemisphere excluding Britain (non-native – Northern)
  • Southern hemisphere (non-native – Southern or 'exotics')

Does a plant's origin affect how well it supports pollinating insects?

Many gardeners are keen to encourage insects into a garden, especially those that help pollinate our flowers and fruit. Some of these pollinators have been in decline so the more we can optimise a garden for them through our plant choice, the better.

Native plants would seem to be the obvious choice to support our native pollinators but with so many non-native plants also grown in gardens and little known about their benefit to wildlife, the answer to this question has remained unclear. Below are the findings and recommendations to gardeners from recent research.

Key messages for gardeners on planting for pollinators

  1. In your garden the best strategy for gardeners wanting to support pollinating insects in gardens is to plant a mix of flowering plants from different parts of the world.
  2. As part of this mix aim to have more plants that are native to Britain and the northern hemisphere than the southern hemisphere. Exotic plants can be used to extend the season (especially late summer flowering) and provide nectar and pollen for some specific pollinators. Many gardeners in the UK already adopt this approach since native and northern hemisphere plants are usually very reliable in a British climate and a smattering of more exotic plants helps provide flowers up to the first frosts and often introduces unusual flowers colours and shapes.
  3. Regardless of plant origin (native or non-native), the more flowers your garden can offer throughout the year, the greater the number of bees, hoverflies and other pollinating insects it will attract and support.

How to apply this in the garden

Enhance your garden for pollinators through plant choice:

  1. Consider the seasons, especially early and late when there is less in flower for insects to forage, and try to have plants flowering every month.
  2. Don’t skimp on the flowers – pack them in wherever they will thrive, usually best in sun or part shade.
  3. Plant a mixture of plants – gardens that are themed on plants from just one region may not be the optimum strategy for supporting our pollinating insects.
  4. Observe the plants in your garden and other gardens, and grow more of whatever is popular with pollinators in your neighbourhood.
  5. Allotment holders can make a huge contribution to pollinator conservation by allowing a small proportion of herbs and vegetables to flower, or by planting flowers for cutting on their plots.

What should I plant?

Our research is not prescriptive on exactly which plants you should plant in your garden but to help get you started we have put together a shortlist of 100 Plants for Pollinator plants. These are listed by region of origin to help you optimise your garden for pollinating insects - simply download RHS Plants for Pollinators: Plants of the World.

Research and further reading

RHS Plants for Bugs research

Plants for Bugs was a four-year study into wildlife gardening, which was undertaken at RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey, and supported by the Wildlife Gardening Forum. Read here for more about the design of the experiment and plants used in the study. The second scientific paper reported on invertebrates living on the leaves and stems and the third paper reported on invertebrates living at ground level.

Recording pollinators

Results from the first scientific paper focused on pollinating (termed 'flower-visiting') insects. These were recorded through observations when weather conditions were favourable for flying insects such as bees, wasps, butterflies, flies (including hoverflies) and adult beetles. An observer noted on a record sheet those seen landing on flowers.

Further reading

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.