What’s the difference between a garden plant and a wildflower?

27 March 2013

Our passion for putting labels on things leads to some rather odd distinctions: “plants” and “weeds”, “friends” and “foes” when we’re talking about insects, and “garden plants” versus “wildflowers”.  In the last case, if you think about it, every plant is the offspring of a wild flower at some point in history – unless they were brought here by aliens, but dandelion delivery by UFO doesn’t really work for me.

Comma on devil's-bit scabious flower

Comma on devil’s-bit scabious flower

Garden plants, as we label them, have been bred with the gardener in mind, which does not always suit wildlife – the trend towards double rather than single flowers, for example, often means insects cannot get to the nectar-producing part of the plant. There is some argument that nectar is nectar and many garden plants are as good as wildflowers, but when it comes to providing food for caterpillars, many butterflies and moths have developed to eat very specific plants over the millennia and may not be able to change their allegiance easily.  My basic rule of thumb is that you can’t go wrong with wildflowers, whereas garden plants can vary considerably in their use to wildlife. One of the plants you’ve probably got most of in your garden because someone put it there is the rye grass that makes up a lot of lawns, and it is pretty useless for insects.

Sweet Woodruff

Sweet Woodruff

We tend not to see much in-depth information on growing wild flowers – an author might exhort you to grow devil’s-bit scabious or sweet woodruff, but they give no detail of the soil or position the plant likes. I constantly find myself turing to two sources: the “Wild flower specification manual” from Really Wild Flowers, and the “National Trust Book of Wildflower Gardening” by John Stevens for this detailed information.

Really Wild Flowers are a company who specialise in growing wild flowers for sale, and their “Wild flower specification manual” is available as a free download: go to www.reallywildflowers.co.uk  and then go to the advice section and find the downloads, where you will also find documents on butterfly food/nectar plants and on plants generally good for insects. The National Trust book is now out of print, but available very cheaply via Amazon.

One of the great things about wildflowers is they often prefer to grow in places where you roses and dahlias would struggle to put on a show, so they can be good for you as a gardener as well as the wildlife in your garden – try some.


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