Imagine you could plant a garden so lush, green, and full of blooming things that angels would come down from on high to sip from its reservoirs of nectar. You can. With the right flowers to attract them, you’ll provide irresistible temptations to hummingbirds—the angels (and devils) of the bird world.
Hummingbirds seem like angels because they flash colors too bright to be of this world, fly forward, backward, and sideways with the greatest of ease, and sport glittering feathers that put Elvis Presley’s sequined jumpsuits to shame. They are devils because hummingbirds will do just about anything to defend their feeding territories—joust, stab, intimidate, and attack relentlessly. If you’re going to attract hummingbirds to dine in your yard, be prepared to observe table manners ranging from angelic to beastly.
Gardening for hummingbirds can be as simple or as complex as you like. First, of course, you need a patch of ground within the breeding or migratory range of one or more hummingbird species. Where I live in upstate New York (and throughout the eastern United States), the hummingbird that nests in trees and passes through town during spring and fall migrations is the ruby-throated. Western friends see a variety of species, and in the Mississippi town where my wife and I once lived, friends report regular visits from two hummingbirds, the ruby-throated and the rufous.
This is an exciting time to garden for hummingbirds because the old rules about which species occur where are changing rapidly—perhaps because more people are paying attention to hummingbirds, and feeding them, than ever before. Expect visits from the hummingbirds that experts say are found in your region, but always keep your eyes open for surprises.
For example, many books on birds assert that the only hummingbird east of the Mississippi is the ruby-throated, yet in recent years hummingbird enthusiasts in the eastern states have documented cameo appearances by black-chinned, Anna’s, rufous, and buff-bellied hummingbirds, all wanderers from the West.
Plant the right flowers and they will come. What wildflowers and flowering shrubs and trees will prove irresistible to hummingbirds? That’s what you’ll need to know.
People who hike through hummingbird territory wearing red have learned that the color red can be a powerful attractant. In Big Bend National Park in Texas, I was once prodded repeatedly by a blue-throated hummingbird. It mistook the maroon day-pack on my back for an oversized blossom.
Bees see best at the violet and ultraviolet end of the spectrum, and perhaps that’s why hummingbird-attracting plants have evolved red, orange, and yellow flowers. Bees see these colors poorly, if at all, yet hummingbirds spy them at great distances. In fact, if you want to attract hummingbirds to a newly established garden or feeding station, hang scarlet ribbons or pieces of crimson cloth in the vicinity. If they’re buzzing around the neighborhood, hummingbirds will notice the colors and zoom in to investigate.
Scientists believe that it’s no coincidence that hummingbirds, with their attenuated tongues and long, pointed bills, are perfectly suited to drink from—and pollinate—certain flowers. Hummingbirds and many of the blossoms they visit are thought to have evolved together in a process biologists call coevolution.
Each gets something from the bargain. Hummingbird plants get their pollen delivered far afield, which stirs the genetic pot and makes for numerous and vigorous seeds and seedlings. In payment for their courier work, hummingbirds come away with aviation fuel (we call it “nectar,” and its main ingredient is sucrose) and a rich harvest of insects.
No bird lives on sweet drink alone. For hummingbirds, insects and spiders provide fat and protein vital to their survival. So while hummingbirds come to your garden for nectar, they will also take away bellies full of bugs.
Hummingbird flowers generally have little odor, and most hummingbirds have little or no sense of smell. (The black-chinned hummingbird of the West may be an exception, or the rule. Studies suggest that this bird sniffs its way to feeders. Further study will clarify whether other species do, too.) Yet what they lack in scent, hummingbird blossoms make up for in pleasing shapes and colors.
Hummingbird flowers are usually trumpet-shaped, with the long tube or throat of the trumpet drooping downward. The shape and orientation help to deter would-be nectar robbers such as bees and butterflies, and the trumpet, or tubular corolla, guides the bird’s bill to its sweet reward. While feeding from a blossom, the hummingbird usually deposits or picks up pollen on its forehead, chin, or bill.
Some hummingbird plants produce pollen at one time and develop receptive stigmata (the female parts of the blossoms) at others. This arrangement ensures that each flower receives another flower’s pollen—a desirable circumstance that produces greater genetic diversity among the plant’s seeds and better odds for survival.
As I’ve already mentioned, bright colors, mostly reds, oranges, and yellows, typify the flowers that hummingbirds visit. This is a good thing, not only for the hummingbird that uses the colors as signposts to food and drink, but for the hummingbird gardener, too. Every plant that attracts hummingbirds produces gorgeous blossoms. In providing food for the birds, you supply yourself, your friends, and neighbors a feast for the eye.
A simple hummingbird garden might consist of a few plants of one or two species—just enough to bring hummingbirds close for a look during the growing season. My first attempt at cultivating plants for hummingbirds was wildly successful, and it consisted simply of transplanting a perennial herb called wild bergamot from a meadow where it was abundant and soon to be mowed.
The plants were ready to bloom, and I loved the idea of seeing the buds open outside a picture window I had recently installed. By careful digging and frequent watering after the plants were relocated, I kept all of them alive. They flowered magnificently, attracting several hummingbirds. Fourteen years later, the wild bergamot and its offspring still thrive in the place where I planted it. So do the hummingbirds, which are probably descendants of the bergamot’s first visitors.
Of course, if you like your gardens grand and want to keep hummingbirds visiting throughout the season, you’ll need to cultivate a variety of plants. Here I recommend choosing natives to your region over exotics. Ecologists are increasingly aware of the havoc alien plants are wreaking in environments around the world.
The beauty of gardening with indigenous plants is that it’s a win-win-win situation. You can conserve natural resources, minimize your work load (natives, when planted in the right place, require little care), and grow a beautiful garden all at the same time. The best plantings for hummingbirds vary from region to region. Detailed recommendations can be gleaned from numerous sources, including garden centers, plant nurseries and websites.
In my neck of the woods, proven hummingbird attractors include the red native lobelia known as cardinal-flower, wild columbine, two of the mints, bee balm and wild bergamot, wild bleeding-heart, turtlehead, the wild impatiens known as jewelweed, and native azaleas such as pinxter-flower. Certain trees attract hummingbirds, too, among them black locust and basswood. If you grew these plants and not a single hummingbird ever appeared, you would be satisfied by the beauty of the flowers alone. When hummingbirds do appear, they are the icing on a brightly colored cake.
In western North America, gardeners can attract such beauty pageant winners as rufous, broad-tailed, Calliope, and Anna’s hummingbirds. Here native hummingbird plants are as diverse as the birds that sip from them. Good plants to try are soft-stemmed wildflowers such as bluebonnets, claret cup cactus, columbines, scarlet delphinium, Indian pink, monkey flowers, penstemons, and sage; and woody plants such as ocotillo, New Mexico locust, and California buckeye.
Although I have a strong preference for cultivating local native plants rather than exotics and plants that are indigenous but outside their natural ranges, hummingbirds are not so choosy. The little nectar drinkers, in their enormous thirst and need to meet the high caloric cost of keeping airborne, will come readily to snapdragons, petunias, lilac, clematis, fuchsia, nasturtium, morning glory, eucalyptus, foxglove, lantana, horse chestnut, and Japanese honeysuckle. Among the extralimital native plants that hummingbird-lovers grow in my part of the country are trumpet creeper, buckeye, Turk’s cap lily, and flame azalea.
To obtain plants and seeds, there are several options. Your local nursery probably stocks a variety of species on the hummingbird menu. The staff can advise you as well as anyone regarding which plants will thrive in your corner of the world. Magazines featuring birds and gardening usually run advertisements from companies that sell bird-attracting plants by mail. When ordering long-distance, make sure you select plants that will be hardy in your region, and insist on a guarantee that the nursery is getting its stock from plant breeders, rather than pillaging from the wild.
Because hummingbirds feed on insects as well as sap and the nectar of their favorite flowers, all the plants of your garden will encourage them in one way or another. Where there are green and growing things, there are bugs. The menu for most hummingbirds includes gnats, fruit flies, aphids, mosquitoes, and tiny bees. Spiders are seized and swallowed, too, as are those spider look-alikes, the daddy-long-legs.
Watching hummingbirds in your garden will provide a source of satisfaction and delight. Rather than seeing the hot-blooded helicopters landing again and again in the same manner on a factory-made feeder, you’ll see their acrobatic talents tested by a variety of plants. Hummingbirds hover, advance, retreat, and drive off competitors as conditions necessitate, and watching them provides a delightful course in civil and not-so-civil aeronautics.
As gardener and air-traffic controller, your choice of planting locations may have an important effect on the number of hummingbirds you attract and the amount of time they spend battling each other. Distributing plants around the four sides of a house, for example, will help ensure that more than one hummingbird enjoys your floral smorgasbord. Male and female hummingbirds will defend favorite feeding grounds, but there is a limit to how much area one bird can survey and defend. You can also promote peace among hummingbirds by choosing plants with modest numbers of blossoms, and growing many of them. This will allow several hummingbirds to coexist in an area that otherwise might support only one.
If you maintain hummingbird feeders, or would like to, a hummingbird garden will help attract customers and keep them around. The reverse is also true. Hanging a few nectar feeders in or near your garden will supplement the diet provided by the plants and ensure that the birds not only pay you a visit but stay a while. There’s no need to buy commercial nectar formulas. Simply boil four parts of water, stir in one part table sugar by volume, cool, and fill your feeders economically. Be sure to keep unused sugar solution in the refrigerator and keep your feeders clean.
In positioning a hummingbird feeder, I recommend keeping it within view of hummingbird plants and well away from ordinary bird feeders. Once, my wife and I hung a hummingbird feeder a few inches from a feeding shelf frequented by a male cardinal, and the result was ugly. A male hummingbird zoomed in, jabbed the much larger red bird several times in the belly, and backed off, hovering. The cardinal, meanwhile, either terrorized or affronted, fled the scene and never appeared again.
So if it’s hummingbirds you want, get to work. From humble beginnings, your garden may grow over the years from a few plants seeded or transplanted on a single weekend into a lush, blossoming hummingbird paradise. It will be a paradise frequented by angels, and even if the feathered cherubs exhibit a little devilish behavior now and again, who will think to complain?
Ed Kanze is a writer, naturalist, and photographer who lives in New York. He has written three books: Notes from New Zealand (Henry Holt, 1992), The World of John Burroughs (Harry Abrams, 1993), and Wild Life: The Remarkable Lives of Ordinary Animals (Crown, 1995). He is currently working on a book about a nine-month, 25,000-mile journey of discovery that he and his wife, Debbie, made through Australia.
North American hummingbirds are found in areas with scattered tree and shrub cover and along woodland edges; therefore the Great Plains, historically covered by grasslands, does not harbor many hummingbirds. In the Midwest, however, the ruby-throated hummingbird is a common visitor to our yards.
To entice these creatures into your garden, offer their favorite foods by planting nectar-producing and insect-pollinated plants. Native wildflower options include the beardtongue, bergamot, and New Jersey tea. The lavender, tube-shaped flowers of the beardtongue welcome the hummingbird’s voracious appetite for nectar in early June. In midsummer, the tiny white flower clusters of the New Jersey tea attract insects, which satisfy the hummingbirds’ quest for protein.
The lilac flowers of the bergamot provide nectar in late summer. These wildflowers are native to the Midwest and eastern Great Plains and thrive on well-drained, sandy to sandy-loam soils. Bergamot will also do well in heavy clay soils.—Jennifer Baker
Jennifer Baker is a consulting ecologist and land planner/landscape designer in Wisconsin. She earned her master’s degree in wildlife ecology with an emphasis on prairie faunal and floral ecology. Jennifer’s current project is restoring the oak savanna and dry prairie habitat on her 160-acre farm in the central sands of Wisconsin.
The most exciting point to remember in the Humid South is that hummingbird gardening does not just mean rubythroats in the summer. Caribbean hummingbirds sometimes wander into southern Florida. The ruby-throated and buff-bellied breed in coastal Texas, and wintering Anna’s hummingbirds have been reported as far north as Arkansas and North Carolina, with a Calliope noted in Atlanta. Although 10 species have been recorded in Mississippi, rufous hummingbirds seem to be the most numerous Humid South winterers.
Although gnats and other soft-bodied insects are major winter food sources for hummingbirds (compost bins, ponds, and woods help “grow” these), nectar feeders and red flowers need to be up and running year-round not only to give flying dynamos a boost, but also to provide a chance of seeing wintering hummingbirds.
Spring flowering natives that attract rubythroats are red buckeye, red maple, trumpet creeper, crossvine, lyre-leaved sage, azaleas; rhododendrons and columbine in the northern part of the region. My husband Steve and I set out bright red cannas to act as a beacon to guide hummingbirds into our yard.
Summer blooming perennials and vines include orange jewelweed (a must, especially in the northern and middle part of the South), bee balm, coral bells, coral honeysuckle, cypress vine, cardinal climber, red morning glory, butterfly bush, lantana, pentas, Turk’s cap lily, red hibiscus, and red crocosmia. Flowering in early summer, the non-native mimosa tree provides nectar and insects. Hummingbirds love salvias, and many bloom until frost: pineapple sage, Texas sage, Mexican bush sage, and giant blue sage. Throughout summer and fall, red ginger lilies are the mainstay of our back garden, with cardinal flowers and Mexican spikes also blooming in fall.
Many salvias and non-native favorites can be grown in the garden in summer and potted up and moved into the home or greenhouse on frosty nights and back out on warm days. Examples are Mexican cigar plants (Cuphea spp.), shrimp plants (Justicia brandegeana), flowering maples (Abutilon spp.), and pagoda plants (Clerodendrum speciosissimum).—Jeanne Lebow
A poet and former Fulbright lecturer and university professor, Jeanne Lebow has been writing a nature column for two weekly newspapers for the last eight years. Jeanne and her husband, Steve, garden for hummingbirds at their Gautier/Ocean Springs-area home in Mississippi.
Now is the time to plant passionflower vine and Mexican bush sage and welcome hummingbirds back into your garden. Consider drought-tolerant natives such as California fuchsia, monkey flower, and lupine. Aloes thrive in both desert and seaside areas and attract hummingbirds with their bright orange blooms. Cottage gardeners may want to consider butterfly bush, bee balm, penstemon, and foxglove. Try cardinal climber for a fast-growing annual vine with small, trumpet-shaped red flowers, and in the vegetable garden, plant scarlet runner beans for their bright red flowers and edible bean pods. Species most frequently seen along the West Coast this time of year include Anna’s, Allen’s, rufous, Costa’s, and black-chinned hummingbirds. To see a thriving hummingbird garden in action, pack a picnic and head to a nearby botanical garden such as Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas, Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in Modjeska Canyon, Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden in Claremont, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, or the University of California-Berkeley Botanical Garden.—Amy Stewart
Amy Stewart, a native Texan, lives a block from the beach in Santa Cruz, California, where she enjoys the many shorebirds that live in and around the protected waters of the Monterey Bay. She writes a regular gardening column for La Gazette, a monthly Santa Cruz newspaper. Her essays also appear in GreenPrints, a national gardening journal, and in a variety of Bay Area periodicals, including Metro Santa Cruz and San Francisco’s Nob Hill Gazette.
Pacific Northwest gardeners can stop returning rufous hummingbirds in their tracks with the early blooms of red-flowering currant. This deciduous Coast Range native flowers prolifically from March to June. Plant red-hot poker, foxglove, and the wickedly beautiful crocosmia “Lucifer” in your perennial beds to keep the hummingbirds happy through midsummer. Then, from to July to frost, let hardy fuchsia magellanica boast a profusion of long red and purple flowers. Foliage colors range from rich evergreen to lime-tinged yellow (aurea) to a variegated creamy gray and pink (versicolor). All are hardy, except in the highest elevations. In a protected spot with some sun and good drainage, they can even bloom their way through mild winters. That should keep the overwintering Anna’s hummingbirds very happy.—Barbara Richardson
Barbara Richardson is a novelist and professional garden designer. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Gardeners in the mountain ecoregion, especially those above 6,000 feet in elevation, can expect to attract broad-tailed, black-chinned, Calliope, and rufous hummingbirds. At lower elevations, spring and fall migration are the best time to attract hummingbirds.
Best bets in shrubs to attract hummingbirds are Arnold’s red honeysuckle, butterfly bush, flowering currant, rose of Sharon, and weigela.
Penstemon tops the perennial list followed closely by salvia, bee balm, cardinal flower, columbine, coral bells, and tall garden phlox.
For annuals, try scarlet sage, salvia, petunia, flowering tobacco, four o’clock, nasturtium, zinnia, snap-dragon, fuchsia, and spider flower.
Inviting vines include trumpet honeysuckle, “Dropmore” honeysuckle, morning glory, trumpet vine, and scarlet runner bean.
Due to wide fluctuation in planting zones (3–7) in this ecoregion, not all of these plants are hardy to the coldest zone. Check with your local nursery for hardiness.—Miles Blumhardt
Miles Blumhardt is the outdoor and garden writer at the Fort Collins Coloradoan newspaper. He is a self-taught gardener whose backyard is a certified backyard wildlife habitat.
Here on our farm in central Maine, we are blessed with frequent visits of rubythroats, even though we have never used feeders. A 150-foot hedge of Siberian peashrub draws them in May with its profusion of deep yellow pea-like flowers. The hedge leads to the house where a perennial garden keeps them occupied all summer. Most prominent and popular in the garden is a large planting of mixed columbine. Their extended bloom lasts right into August. Concurrently, there are perennial pockets of bee balm, delphinium, and various lilies in bloom. A favorite seems to be a generous planting of the native Turk’s cap lily. To our delight, this lily thrives here though well north of its natural range (with stalks up to nine feet, and 20 or more flowers per stalk). Proximal shrub displays of weigela “red prince” and azalea “rosy lights” add to the lure along with the super hardy “Dropmore” honeysuckle, a hybrid vine developed in Manitoba that boasts orange-red tubular flowers through summer and fall. Each year a few tardy but hardy “Dropmore” flowers can still be found right up to the first hard freeze.—Warren Balgooyen
Warren Balgooyen is a naturalist and field botanist who lives in Maine. He runs a landscaping service and provides native plants on his small farm in order to encourage wildlife habitat.
The Desert Southwest hosts more kinds of hummingbirds than any other part of North America. At lower elevations in this region, hummingbird gardening can be a year-round venture. With a selection of flowers that bloom at different seasons, one may host these hummingbirds all year long. The same garden might be visited by black-chinned hummingbirds in spring and summer, by rufous hummingbirds in early fall, and by Anna’s hummingbirds in winter.
One excellent choice for the hummingbird garden is autumn sage or Texas red sage. This small shrub, native to the Chihuahuan Desert of Texas and Mexico, sports tubular flowers in a variety of color forms. (The reddish colors are best for attracting hummingbirds.) Autumn sage has an extended blooming season during the warmer months, and in my Tucson garden blooms throughout the year. It uses relatively little water, so may not thrive in more humid regions, but it’s a good choice for the arid Southwest.—Lynn Hassler
Lynn Hassler has been bird watching, gardening, and studying plants for more than 25 years, and is now on the staff of the Tucson Botanical Gardens (TBG). She helped develop the “Backyard Bird Garden” at TBG and has written a bird gardening column for the TBG newsletter. She is vice-president of the Arizona Native Plant Society and editor of the “Desert Bird Gardening” booklet, published by that group and Tucson Audubon Society.