Top Ten Garden Trees For Wildlife
Any tree in your garden is a hugely beneficial resource for so much of our wildlife, providing food, shelter and shade as well as cover from predators. But here's a list of the trees that I believe are among the very best choices you can make for wildlife. Every garden should have at least one!
Goat Willow (Salix caprea)
Sometimes called Pussy Willow, it is best known for its beautiful gold-yellow male catkins which when ripe are a fabulous early source of pollen and nectar for bees and other insects, including some butterflies. The goat willow is host to a variety of different caterpillars, which in turns makes it a valuable ‘food factory’ for parenting birds to feed their young. Height, up to 10m. Smaller gardens and even courtyards could find a home for the ever-popular cultivar Kilmarnock Willow, which has a height of just 2m.
Hazel (Corylus avellana)
A classic mixed hedgerow plant, hazel makes an ideal tree in a small garden. It thrives on being cut back every 6 or 7 years, and the cut canes can then readily be used in the garden. A food source for many caterpillars, the pretty catkins can be a good pollen provider for bees. The hazelnuts themselves are of course eaten by squirrels, but also enjoyed by great tits, greater spotted woodpeckers, nuthatches, dormice and wood mice. A purple-leaved variety, Corylus maxima Purpurea can also be used for extra garden colour. 10-15m.
Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris)
The perfect choice for a small garden, crab apples manage to cater for so much wildlife – a rich food source for caterpillars (around 90 associated insect species in total), and therefore birds too.
Birds such as blue tits rely heavily on caterpillars when feeding their young. Bees will enjoy the beautiful, nectar-rich flowers while birds will also eat the pretty fruits that form in late summer/autumn).
Silver Birch (Betula pendula)
Once known as ‘the lady of the woods’, the thin, delicately drooping branches, small heart-shaped leaves and wonderful silvery bark make the silver birch one of our most graceful trees. Yet it’s also one of the very best for wildlife attracting a wealth of beneficial insects (229), second only to oak in this list.
This in turn attracts many of the insect-eating birds, while finches and over-wintering species enjoy the seeds. Suitable for medium gardens, it is slow-growing and can be regularly pruned to maintain size. Loved by woodpeckers and tree creepers, older trees also become a wonderful host to bracket fungi.
English Oak (Quercus robur) and Sessile Oak (Quecus petraea)
Even if you don’t have room to grow this magnificent tree in your garden, it’s worth knowing that it is home to an incredible 284 different insect species, easily earning itself the title of the very finest wildlife tree we have in the UK. Its mature size also means it provides plentiful nesting places for so many birds while the acorns (produced from the age of about 40 years’ old) are an important food source for birds such as jays, and mammals such as badgers, deer and red squirrels.
Bats will sometimes roost in the many crevices and holes made by woodpeckers. Oaks are relatively quick growing when young, taking things a little easier from the age of about 120! The crown opens out as it matures, allowing light on to the woodland floor which then enables bluebells, primroses and wood anemone to flourish. The easiest way to tell these two native oaks apart is that the English oak bears acorns with stalks while the Sessile’s acorns are stalkless and attached directly to a twig.
Wild Cherry (Prunus avium)
A small to medium-sized tree, the delightful sprays of white spring blossom provide a fantastic source of nectar and pollen for bees while the summer-fruiting cherries are eaten by birds such as blackbirds and thrushes.
The fruits are also enjoyed by mammals such as wood mice, dormice and badgers.
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)
An elegant tree sometimes known as Mountain Ash, the Rowan produces distinctive bright red berries in the autumn which not only provide a welcome splash of colour but are invaluable food for blackbirds, thrushes, and starlings.
If you’re lucky, you could see visiting waxwings take care of any berries that remain on the tree by the time winter arrives.
Home to a more modest 28 associated insect species, this beautiful tree still makes a very worthy and useful addition to any garden.
Height up to 15m.
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
Although hawthorn can of course can be grown as an excellent wildlife hedge, the spectacular display of creamy-white (sometimes pink) May blossom and later the beautiful bright red berries (or haws) make this a fine choice to grow as a specimen tree. Ideal for even smaller gardens the benefits for wildlife make this one of the ‘top-of the-list’ trees to consider planting (hawthorns have 149 associated insect species). The berries are of course a great winter food supply for birds such as waxwings, fieldfares and red wings as well as small mammals.
Alder (Alnus glutinosa)
A lover of damp, even wet ground, this slender, graceful tree sports beautiful male catkins and female ‘cones’ – a great seed source for birds such as siskins, goldfinches and redpolls. A wonderful host for insects, with around 90 associated species, it is favoured by many garden moths such as the May Highflyer.
Aspen poplar (Populus tremula)
Taking its latin name from the constantly quaking leaves that tremble in the slightest breeze the aspen turns a spectacular golden colour in autumn. Once the female catkins are pollinated and ripened they release fluffy seeds which are easily carried by the wind. Like the Alder, it’s also home to around 90 different insect species.
Other superb trees for wildlife worth considering are: Beech, Scots Pine, White Willow, and Yew for large gardens; Field Maple, Elder and Holly for small to medium-sized gardens.