Shrubs are woody plants that are smaller than trees and usually have multiple branches from their base. In contrast, a tree usually has one main trunk and grows much taller, although there are a few species, such as the hazel, that are often classified as both trees and shrubs. There are also many trees that can be pruned to become more like shrubs.
Why are shrubs important to wildlife?
Shrubs as wildlife habitat
Shrubs can provide a wide range of wildlife values to a garden. Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of a shrub is its structure. In a yard too small for trees, shrubs probably provide the best form of cover and security for birds, insects, and small mammals. Even where there are trees, shrubs can be used as undergrowth, where they provide denser thickets into which garden birds can take refuge, mammals can find shelter, and insects can hide or even hibernate.
The hedgehog is a good example of a mammal that spends its daylight hours hiding in leaf litter under a thick bush. Where the bush is high and dense enough we may also find nesting birds such as dunnock, robins, song thrushes, wrens and blackbirds. Other birds, including house sparrows, depend on shrubs between feeding times to feel secure in a dense thicket and to chirp contentedly with one another.
For these reasons, shrubs are a great sanctuary near houses, but when planning the placement of shrubs in a garden, we should be aware that birds and mammals behave very differently. Isolated shrubs near a home are used by birds, but small mammals may avoid crossing open spaces to find them. Therefore, it is better, if possible, to create a series of shrubs that may be associated with a wildlife habitat in another part of the garden. in a neighboring garden or a hedge in the countryside.
Shrubs can be evergreen or deciduous. With enough space, it would be good to have both. Evergreens with dense growth provide better nesting opportunities for overwintering insects and birds, especially species like blackbirds, robins and dunnock, which start building their nests before foliage plants have developed their leaves.
Pyracantha, barberry, and privet are examples of semi-evergreen or evergreen shrubs that provide security for nesting birds, as well as nectar and berries. Pyracantha can be grown against the wall of a house or shed where it will take up less space and may even be more suitable for wintering insects due to the shelter it provides.
There are many other hedge plants that are fully evergreen and good for structure but don’t provide as many wildlife services. Worth having a few if you have the space. Escallonia, for example, makes a good dense hedge plant that also provides nectar.
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The Ceanothus is an incredible shrub for spring flowers, here a honey bee collects pollen
Best shrubs for nectar
As wild gardeners, we should aim to provide at least one source of nectar each month of the year. Shrubs are invaluable in this process as there are several species that bloom early and late in the year and can produce an abundance of blooms that sometimes persist for several weeks.
There are good reasons to choose native shrub species, but for the purpose of offering nectar it really doesn’t matter if the shrubs are native or not, in fact many of our most lush shrubs are non-native.
Here are a few shrubs that bloom at any time of the year.
Winter: Winter honeysuckle, winter bloomers, mahonia, cornel (the largest of the shrubs mentioned here)
Spring: Ceanothus, pyracantha, gorse, tree lupine, flowering currant, rosemary, forsythia
Summer: Buddleia, privet, lavender, tree mallow, raspberry, Spiraea japonica
Autumn: Heather, Hebe (Autumn Splendor), Fatsia japonica, Fuchsia
Best shrubs for berries
As well as producing flowers in spring or summer, there are some shrubs that also grow berries and provide an abundance of food for birds and mammals in the fall and winter. Especially in a garden with limited space, it’s important to choose species that can offer both.
Here are some of the most productive berry bushes:
Pyracantha – thorny but by far my favorite with flowers for insects and an abundance of berries loved by blackbirds and thrushes
Berberis – Beware of the evil thorns!
snowball – nice clusters of red berries for birds
raspberry – good for shield bugs
dogwood– the leaves are eaten by moths and the berries by birds
Rosa Rugosa – Flowers for insects and rose hips, ideal for finches
liguster – a great all-rounder but needs pruning
Fatsia – Late flowering with dark berries in late winter
In February, the cornel blooms, which attracts insects, which in turn attract birds looking for an insect snack, which is a chiffchaff
Best shrubs as forage plants
It is often said that for the benefit of wildlife we should use native species of trees, flowers and shrubs. One reason is that our wildlife has evolved alongside native species over a long period of time. Many insects in particular have a complex life cycle, parts of which (mostly the caterpillar) depend on the availability of suitable native species. Some non-natives like fuchsias can also be popular with certain species. So to maximize our support for nature, we should grow specific shrubs that target specific target insect species.
Here are a few suitable shrubs whose leaves are eaten by the larvae of some lovely moths and butterflies:
Alder buckthorn and alder buckthorn for brimstone butterflies
gorse (as well as gorse) for Green Hairstreak butterflies and various British moths
liguster for privet hawk moths
fuchsia for the elephant lover
heather for several moth larvae including the fox moth
bell heather for the impressive emperor moth larva
Raspberry and red currant for several moth species
Looking for more ways to attract wildlife to your yard? Find out about wildlife-friendly plants and how your lawn can become a wildlife habitat
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