We understand plants and flowers are beneficial, so whats the issue with weeds?

These unwanted wild plants are sprayed, pulled up, and despised yet they have a critical part to play in our ecological landscape; ‘weeds’ will help reverse the dual biodiversity and climate crisis.

In consultation with Phil Macari of Wildcraft, and Climate Action North Associate, we look at wild plants, their significance to wildlife and the environment, and why attitudes towards them must shift fast.

“Weeds are classed as plants that grow and haven’t been intentionally sown by humans,” Phil explained, “and for many reasons they have been unwanted throughout history. It’s ingrained in our mindsets that we must have neat and tidy gardens and removing them has become part of our everyday gardening activities.

“It’s worth noting that ‘weed’ has become a permanent label, rather than a temporary and changeable description, for plants that are wildflowers. This unpleasant description taints the plant with a negative and even aggressive attitude as if they are trying to make our life worse, create more work, almost taunting the over-tidy gardener.

“But they are wildflowers! And that means they are nature’s best, experienced, and generous givers of pollen, nectar, food, and shelter to all the other lovely bits of wildlife we love.”

Here are five wild plants native to the UK that are deemed troublesome weeds yet offer wonderful benefits to wildlife and our environment.

Bramble (Rubus fruticosus)

This dense, prickly shrub offers valuable protection from predators for nesting birds and a range of small animals, including hedgehogs, dormice, and even grass snakes. Its dark juicy berries are relished by humans, birds, and animals alike, and its flowers provide essential food for insects, including honeybees and bumblebees.

Because it is thorny, grazers like deer will steer clear, preventing them from devouring any nearby trees – and we know how important trees are!

Next time you spot bramble flourishing in your garden, try letting it grow and you’ll be amazed with the wealth of wildlife that arrives with it.

Dandelion (Taraxacum spp.)

The humble dandelion is one of the most undervalued, overlooked wildflowers in the UK and in the minds of many, though not all, must be eliminated at all costs.

Yet its rich source of nectar, pollen and seeds makes it important for the survival of a wide variety of wildlife, which depend on it for food.

Each flower head contains approximately 100 individual flowers rich in pollen and nectar, providing food for different bee species, butterflies, moths, and hoverflies from early spring right through to autumn. Its seed heads are also a vital source of food for many birds including goldfinches, bullfinches, and sparrows.

Their wide-spreading deep roots fertilise grass, loosen hard-packed soil, aerate the earth, and reduce erosion.

Being less hasty with your lawnmower allows the dandelions to bloom; grass filled with dandelions is far better for bees than a sterile, weed-free lawn.

Ivy (Hedera helix)

It’s long been thought ivy is parasitic and suffocates trees it grows on, but this is not true. In fact, trees have co-existed for millions of years with ivy, which has an independent root system and so absorbs its nutrients separately.

It provides year-round sturdy shelter for insects, nesting birds, roosting bats, and other small mammals and is especially useful when it grows up a fence or wall as it creates a vertical, dense habitat.

Ivy is also one of the best food sources during autumn and winter when little else is available. Its berries ripen in February so provides nutritious food for birds. Similarly, it flowers late in the year so is an excellent nectar and pollen source for insects, including bees, hoverflies, wasps, and butterflies that may otherwise go hungry.

Don’t confuse ivy with Boston ivy and poison ivy; these are native to North America and are completely unrelated.

Ivy is friendly to wildlife; allow it to flourish and attract all sorts of insects, birds, and other animals to your garden.

Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Stinging or common nettles are a magnet for wildlife and are known to attract over 40 types of insects, including moths and butterflies, which in turn attract insect-eating birds and animals like frogs, hedgehogs, and shrews all year long. 

Nettles are key to the survival of butterflies. The comma, peacock, red admiral, and small tortoiseshell lay their eggs on stinging nettles and once hatched eat the nutritious leaves. Ladybirds also feast on the aphids that live on nettles.

They also produce thousands of small seeds that birds, including chaffinches, bullfinches, and house sparrows all enjoy.

Nettles are also helpful around the garden as they stimulate the growth of nearby plants, and its nitrogen-rich foliage is an excellent addition to a compost heap.

Think twice before removing nettles as they can be easily managed by trimming and mowing. Why not try leaving a small patch to thrive in your garden and support the wildlife who call it home?

Thistles

Thistles, which belong to the daisy family (asteraceae), are an incredible food plant. Butterflies and many other insects feed on its abundant nectar and pollen all summer long while its seeds provide food for birds.

Because thistles are so important to pollinators, we must control our compulsion to destroy them. Many of those are native wildflower species and are not problematic or aggressive growers. We should be proud of them and remember they’re a huge source of food for many pollinators.

These five wild plants, along with hundreds more, including Basil, Primrose, Dark Mullein, Oxeye Daisy, Red Campion, Yellow Rattle, and Bee and Pyramidal Orchids, provide an essential service to ecosystems that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. They also act like a carbon sink helping to reduce climate change.

Phil concluded: “We must remember none of us exist in isolation. Everything in nature is interconnected and we rely on the web of life for a healthy and sustainable environment. Our pollinators, the wild bumble and solitary bees, butterflies and moths, hoverflies and beetles and so on, are under threat of extinction and this is disastrous given we rely on them to pollinate most of our fruits and vegetables.

“We all need to reframe and reimagine our outdoor landscapes, and in particular rethink the futile battle with weeds. Instead, aiming for a touch of bohemian untidiness will benefit both wildlife and our environment greatly. I coined the phrase “scruffination” and I stand by this as a means to changing the way we view these wonderful plants others call weeds.”

Phil is a key project delivery partner for the Climate Action North Pollinator Parks® initiative, which provides a haven for struggling insect populations on business and retail parks throughout the North of England.

To set up a Pollinator Parks ® area, or find out more about sponsorship opportunities, email sharon@climateactionnortheast.org.uk

Our actions now will make a difference to tomorrow. The time for talking is over, today we need to act – join us!

Photos credits:
Header, dandelion, ivy, nettle, and thistle © Sharon Lashley.
Bramble © William Buist, Unsplash.