Five best plants and flowers to attract birds

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Pyracantha ‘Red Star’ from Suttons

What are the best plants for attracting birds to visit your garden? We put this question to a panel of expert gardening and wildlife bloggers and they told us which trees and shrubs instantly turn your outside space into a bird-friendly habitat. 

In addition to providing high quality bird seed mixes and a clean water supply, here are the five best things to plant if you want to provide food, shelter and nesting sites for the birds in your backyard.

1. Crab apple

Malus (Crab Apple) ‘Prairie Fire’ from Suttons
‘Prairie Fire’ features magenta blossom, purple foliage that changes to green, then red fruits
Image: Malus (Crab Apple) ‘Prairie Fire’ from Suttons

Native plants feature strongly among our top five, but the humble crab apple was by far the top recommendation. The wild ancestor of the edible apple, crab apple trees (Malus sylvestris) are native to the UK and Europe.

Wild crab apple trees often have a gnarled and twisted appearance, especially when they grow in exposed locations. Garden versions can be compact and very pretty, especially when in blossom, and you can often buy them on dwarf rootstocks if space is at a premium.

Over at My Home Farm, Mars and Kirsten recently planted a variety called Malus moerlandsii ‘Profusion’. Jam-packed with goodness, they say: “Blackbirds, robins, starlings, finches and crows love them, as do field mice, voles, foxes and badgers. Crab apples can also be home to over 90 species of insects.

Crab apple trees produce small fruits which are often red or yellow in colour, depending on the variety you choose. Birds and other wildlife love the fruits, and you can harvest some of it for yourself too – they make a delicious jelly and may also be used for cider making.

2. Sunflowers

Sunflower ‘SunBelievable™ Brown Eyed Girl’ plant from Suttons
Growing to about 60cm high, dwarf sunflowers are ideal for patio containers
Image: Sunflower ‘SunBelievable™ Brown Eyed Girl’ plant from Suttons

In our family garden, we love to plant wildflowers and other flowers that attract birds, butterflies and bees,” says Claire Bones at The Ladybird’s Adventures. Sunflowers are her top choice for attracting birds and for introducing children to the joys of gardening. When the flowering season is over, the large flower heads become a great source of food for birds through the autumn.

Over at Green Fingered George, blogger George also recommends sunflowers as one of his top five: “Once they’ve done their bit and flowered, leave the flowers to form large seed heads as they provide oil-rich grub throughout autumn for finches and other seed-eating birds.

Sunflowers come in a wide range of colours and sizes, making them a suitable choice for growing in gardens, courtyards, or even on a balcony. If you’re growing specifically for birds, giant varieties like Sunflower ‘Titan’ bloom as big as a dustbin lid, providing a veritable feast in the autumn. For those with smaller spaces, try a patio variety like Sunflower ‘SunBelievable™ Brown Eyed Girl’ that can be grown in a pot. Either way, the birds will love these plants for their seeds, and also for the insects they attract.

3. Ivy

Hedera Helix ‘Goldchild’ from Suttons
Hedera Helix ‘Goldchild’ has a pretty variegated leaf to brighten dark corners
Image: Hedera Helix ‘Goldchild’ from Suttons

A native evergreen climber that adorns walls, fences and trees everywhere, ivy (Hedera) is common throughout the world. It’s also incredibly attractive and it’s well worth shopping around for varieties with lovely variegated leaves.

According to Green Fingered George, ivy is the plant that the birds visiting his garden love most. He told us: “In autumn, the flowers attract insects when not much else is around, which in turn provide food for robins and wrens.” In patches, his ivy is so thick and dense that it provides the perfect shelter for nesting birds like blackbirds and wrens.

Nick Martin at All Things Wildlife agrees that ivy is a must for attracting birds. He says that climbers like ivy (and also honeysuckle) are great for attracting birds to feed and nest as they support a myriad of invertebrates which supply food for baby birds in the summer.

If you’re concerned about ivy’s propensity to spread, don’t be, says Alexandra Campbell of The Middlesized Garden. To control it, all you need to do is cut it back once a year to keep it under control.

4. Holly

Holly Standard ‘Blue Maid’ from Suttons
Holly is a low maintenance option that requires very little aftercare
Image: Holly Standard ‘Blue Maid’ from Suttons

A wonderful native plant that serves up a banquet of red berries each winter, holly is both a food source and, thanks to its prickles, a well-protected nesting site for birds and hedgehogs. With its glossy, dense foliage, holly works well as a wildlife-friendly security screen and, if left to grow as a tree, can reach heights of up to 15m and live for 300 years.

Young Naturalist: Izzy Fry lists holly as one of her top bird-friendly plants. She says that birds adore the bright red berries in winter and the spiky leaves protect them from predators, meaning they will often roost among the branches.

Over at All Things Wildlife, blogger Nick says that holly berries are especially loved by the winter thrushes such as redwing and fieldfare. And if you need any more persuasion to plant this great all-rounder, Jemma at Thimble & Twig adds that holly bushes are quick and easy to grow and can be left wild, with no upkeep, making them perfect for busy families!

5. Pyracantha

Pyracantha Plant ‘Orange Glow’ from Suttons
Pyracantha provides all year round interest
Image: Pyracantha Plant ‘Orange Glow’ from Suttons

Greek for ‘Firethorn’, pyracantha is one shrub that certainly lives up to its name. It’s a large, thorny evergreen shrub with small leaves and white blossoms which attract lots of insects. Autumn sees the pyracantha come into its own with a blazing display of red, orange or yellow berries which birds love to feast on.

Pyracantha makes great hedging, works well as a standalone shrub, and you can even train it to grow up a wall or fence. Jemma at Thimble & Twig is a huge fan, who particularly recommends Pyracantha ‘Orange Glow’ to bring in the birds!

Often grown for similar reasons, Green Fingered George recommends another thorny berry bush – berberis. If he had to recommend just one bird-friendly plant for the garden, berberis would be it: “The flowers are literally buzzing with bees in spring, then the blackbirds eat the purple berries in autumn.

We hope our top five plants to attract birds inspire you to start planting your bird-friendly garden. For more inspiration, check out the full range of plants for wildlife over at Suttons.

Lead image: Pyracantha ‘Red Star’ from Suttons/Copyright: Alamy Stock Photo

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