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

A A A

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.”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
All British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
News
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game