The Best Midsummer Wildflowers for Wildlife

As the hottest days of the summer approach, gardens can often look a little parched, tired and lacking in colour. The first green flush of early summer is behind us and at least some of our most wildlife friendly perennials could be past their best now. One group of flowers however, can be relied upon to continue to thrive, put on a colourful show and provide nectar and pollen for insects at this time.  These treasures are our native wildflowers and whatever your soil conditions, you will doubtless find a beautiful wildflower or two that will be happy somewhere in your garden.  August is the month to assess our gardens and plan ahead for great colour next year, so think wild!

A country walk this month will give you ideas for future planting.  Identify the wildflowers that interest you as best you can – a digital camera is excellent for this as you can study the flower at your leisure – but be sure to make a note of the habitats in which you see them.  This will give you an idea about where they would like to be in your garden: sun or shade, and wet or dry soil.  In order for them to flower at their best next year when other plants are flagging, you will need to ensure that they are in the conditions they prefer in the wild.

Wildflowers for mixed borders Sadly most of us do not have the space for an exuberant border filled entirely with wildflowers, but natives mixed with non-native perennials and biennials, with the odd annual thrown in, can provide colour and interest for all four seasons.  If you make a note now of where you have gaps or spaces in need of an injection of colour, you can plan to add some wildflowers as seed or plants in a couple of months time. So much successful gardening involves planning for the future, so a little time now will really pay off next summer.  Unfortunately some of the summer’s most colourful wildflowers are tenacious and slightly thuggish!  Best to leave those for a ‘wild’ patch where grass and more weedy plants are allowed to wander freely.  But there are plenty of well-behaved natives that fit perfectly into a sunny border.  Many wild species have been ‘improved’ and adapted to garden cultivation in the past but these varieties have less charm than their original cousins and are often less attractive to insects.  If you stick to the true natives, you will find plenty to provide colour and interest.

For a sunny border there are several good choices.  If pale flowers appeal to you, you could do no better than dropwort, a cousin of the beautiful meadowsweet. Meadowsweet requires a damp or clay soil and if your conditions are dry it will struggle.  Dropwort has similar frothy, cream flowers but thrives in dry conditions, being a plant of chalky soils in the wild.  Sadly it has no scent but is well worth growing in spite of that. The biennial wild carrot gives a similar effect, having a flat plate of cream flowers in a shape typical of the umbellifer (or carrot) family.  This plant, like the dropwort, has pretty feathery foliage and attracts a range of small insects, especially hoverflies.

If brighter colours are needed to fill your spaces, you could try viper’s bugloss or great mullein.  The former produces stems of prickly foliage and spikes of small purple flowers.  These flowering spikes continue to unfurl as the year progresses, ensuring a succession of bright, insect attracting blooms well into the late summer.  Bees love this plant, as do the skipper butterflies.  Great mullein and its related species throw up huge spikes of surprisingly large, bright yellow flowers.  Most mulleins are biennials, so a few plants added to your border in the autumn will flower with certainty next summer and seed for future years.  The perennial dark mullein has smaller flower spikes, and the yellow flowers have dark red centres.  This plant is a really useful addition to any garden.  These taller plants could be accompanied by wild teasel for an interesting contrast.  Other suitable plants for a colourful open border include pink musk mallow, sweet-scented wild marjoram which is guaranteed to bring the butterflies flocking, and small and field scabious with their dense mauve pincushions of tiny flowers.  Butterflies and bumblebees love both the scabious species and these plants flower well into September and beyond. For an extra splash of bright yellow, sprinkle corn marigold seeds in the autumn.  Their golden flowers continue to bloom however long and hot the summer.

If your garden is more shady, your choice of colourful wildflowers for this time of year is rather more limited.  Most shade loving natives are spring flowerers but teasel and mullein, already mentioned, will handle some light shade, as will perforate St. John’s wort and betony.  The St John’s wort has a mass of bright yellow flowers and is equally attractive in a sunnier spot.  Damper places too have their special wildflowers for mid summer colour.  Purple loosestrife is perhaps the most spectacular, its spires blooming well into September.  This species, together with water mint, hemp agrimony and devil's bit scabious will keep your pond edge bright and cheerful all through the summer, as well as keeping the insects happy.

For those with smaller gardens or pots and containers to fill, there are more exciting species to try.  Bird’s foot trefoil, with bright yellow pouches in June and July will continue to produce some flowers into August, and provide a larval food plant for the common blue butterfly.  The wild rockrose’s bright yellow saucer-shaped blossoms also continue for a while yet, and wild marjoram is at its best in August.  The pink flowered bell heather is another good choice for containers and small gardens. 

Many of the species already mentioned are happy in grassy places, especially the field scabious, St John’s wort, betony and dropwort.  If you have a small flowery lawn that is left uncut through the summer, you can add to the mix of colour with any of these species plus knapweed, common toadflax, selfheal and the bright purple flowered scrambling tufted vetch.   These can be added as small plug plants late in the autumn, after the grass has been cut and raked away.

Planning ahead can be a tedious aspect of gardening, but it is time well spent.  Small plants obtained in September, October or November can be added to spaces in borders, under trees or into short grass giving them time to settle before the spring.  Or try your hand at sowing seeds of perennials into pots of peat free compost.  Leave these outside all winter to aid germination, and prick out your seedlings into individual small pots in early spring, ready to transplant into spaces in April to fill your borders with ‘wild’ colour this time next year.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017