No more environmental xenophobia: British wildlife has a taste for the exotic and can thrive on non-native plant species

A new Royal Horticultural Society study suggests that British wildlife can thrive on plants from almost anywhere


Scientists believe they are well on their way to debunking one of the most pervasive of all axioms in gardening: that when it comes to plants, “native is best”.

A team of researchers from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has just completed a four-year study into how much wildlife can be supported by native, near-native and exotic plants. It is the first scientific experiment to test a widely accepted hypothesis that plants that originate in Britain are better at sustaining our insect populations.

In a finding that looks set to overturn generations of gardening advice, early indications strongly suggest that all classes of plant are capable of supporting a large and diverse range of invertebrate creatures, according to the project’s assistant manager, Andrew Salisbury.

“This is very exciting. The idea is solidly out there that if you want native insects you should only plant native plants. That’s been the advice for years. Initial analysis shows this is not the case,” said Mr Salisbury, though he cautioned there was much more detailed analysis to be done.

“This is great news for gardeners because it indicates that no matter what you plant it will support a wide range of biodiversity,” he added. “Even if this knowledge doesn’t change what you plant, it will make you feel less guilty about the near-native and exotic plants in your garden.”

The research emerged just days after the EU announced plans to clamp down on harmful non-native plant and animal species such as Japanese Knotweed, which can destroy the foundations of skyscrapers, and Zebra mussels from Russia, which grow prolifically and clog intake pipes at water treatment plants. The EU will draw up a blacklist of invasive alien species in order to limit their spread.

However, only a small minority of the estimated 2,000 alien plant species in the UK are invasive – or fast-spreading – and causing problems for natural habitats or the infrastructure. The RHS research indicates that, overall, non-native plants are a significant force for good.

Native plants are classed as species which arrived in Britain after the last ice age without the assistance of humans. They include holly, ivy, honeysuckle, Foxglove, Majoram, Purple Loosestrife and raspberry.

However, today they account for only about 30 per cent of garden plants, the remainder being non-native species such as sunflowers, Lavender, dahlias, Echinacea and the malus pumila apple, which have entered the country through trade.

“There is still much work to do but I suspect the final conclusion will be that we don’t necessarily need just natives and that we should give careful consideration to natives, near-natives and exotic species,” Mr Salisbury said.

For its so-called Plants for Bugs programme, the RHS has coined the new term of “near-native” plants for species not native to Britain but originating in the Northern hemisphere and arising from similar eco-systems.

The clearest conclusions the RHS has come up with so far relate to pollinators. They are that, while hoverflies prefer native plants, bees are drawn more to near-native species and wasps are most attracted to exotic plants.

Mr Salisbury and his colleagues have recorded the activities of approximately 80,000 invertebrates on plots at the main RHS garden in Wisley, near Woking in Surrey. They will analyse the data over the next two years, starting with pollinators. They will then examine the relationship between various classes of plants and herbivores such as caterpillars and aphids, predators such as spiders and ground beetles and with the whole natural community.

“Ultimately we’ll be producing a guide on the optimum way gardeners can help wildlife by using native and non-native plants in gardens,” said Plants for Bugs project manager Helen Bostock.

Adrian Thomas, gardening expert at the RSPB, said: “This doesn’t mean that every exotic plant is wildlife manna, but choose them well and you can have a garden full of gorgeous flowers from across the globe which delivers a home for nature at the same time.”

But not everybody is convinced. Matt Shardlow, head of the Buglife insect charity, has scrutinised the findings the project. He said: “There are very few relationships that look robust and likely to be scientifically proven.

“Even when recording the visits to flowers by bees, it is nearly impossible to tell if the bee is examining the flower and being disappointed by not finding suitable pollen and nectar or is delighted to find the resource it is seeking.”

FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
New Articles
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam