Weeds for wildlife

Published on February 24th 2019
Dandelions, buttercups, brambles, thistles, nettles – how many of these so-called ‘weeds’ do you tolerate in your garden?
Plants like these are often seen as an unwanted nuisance. But for pollinating insects, such as butterflies and bees, they can be a lifeline.

Wild and weedy patches can also provide food and shelter for all sorts of other creatures.

So being a little lazy in the garden, and letting a few wildflowers grow, is actually a good way to increase biodiversity on your plot.
Having an undisturbed corner, where nettles and thistles can grow, is one way to do this – and could support all kinds of wildlife, including hibernating hedgehogs and toads. This is a good option if you want to keep your garden looking tidy, as the area can be hidden from view by a trellis or screen.

Another easy way to give weeds a chance is to leave a patch of grass to grow long.

Native wildflowers like buttercups, daisies, clover and dandelions are fantastic for pollinators, and can appear quite quickly if you don’t mow. Long grass is an excellent habitat for nesting bumblebees too.
Some weeds are actually quite nutritious for us humans too. Just make sure you know exactly what you’re harvesting (use a guide book) and avoid areas where pesticides or herbicides have been sprayed.
Here are our five favourite weeds for wildlife – some of which are also useful in the kitchen!


A single nettle patch can support over 40 species of insects. They provide food for caterpillars, so are particularly good for butterflies – especially small tortoiseshells and peacocks.
Nettles can be eaten by humans too. The young tips have a similar nutritional value to spinach, and can be cooked in the same way. The sting is destroyed during cooking – just don’t eat them raw, and be sure to wear thick gloves when harvesting!
Blanch fresh nettle tips for a couple of minutes in boiling water, or wilt in a frying pan with some butter, and add to risotto, quiche or soup. Blanched nettle leaves can also be blended with garlic, olive oil and toasted pine nuts for a tasty pesto.


These bright yellow flowers start appearing in early spring, and continue right through to autumn, so are a readily available year-round source of nectar – brilliant for bees! Butterflies and hoverflies like them too, and goldfinches feed on the seeds.
The young leaves and flowers of dandelions are edible, and can be eaten raw (in moderation) in salads. They contain vitamins, calcium and iron, and can act as a diuretic, flushing toxins from the system.


Clover can be white or red, and is often one of the first wildflowers to appear if you let the grass grow. The flowers of both types are well loved by bumblebees, and white clover is a foodplant for common blue butterflies.
Red clover enriches the soil, as it fixes nitrogen, and is sometimes used as an overwintering green manure on vegetable beds.

Garlic mustard

Also known as Jack-by-the-hedge, this shade-loving plant is often found in woodlands or hedgerows, with small white flowers appearing between April and June. It’s a good foodplant for orange-tip butterflies.
As the name suggests, the young, tender leaves have a mild, garlic flavour and can be added to salads. Or finely chop leaves and stir-fry before adding to potato salad, or any other dish that needs a little extra flavour.


Teasel flowers are visited by bees, and birds eat the seeds. Goldfinches, in particular, love pecking at teasels.
The hollow stems of teasels can harbour hibernating insects, so avoid cutting them back if possible. And the architectural, spiky seed heads look attractive in the winter garden, especially when dusted with snow – another excuse to be a lazy gardener!

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