Last Update: 12/15/2016 5:31:00 PM
Outside: The way to a hummingbird's heart is through its stomach, in other words, plant what they like
Outside By Mike Slater
People seem to have enjoyed reading about our rufous hummingbird, Spot, over the last three weeks, so I thought this would be a good time to look back to warmer days and give you a personal review of flowers that are attractive to hummingbirds in our garden.
From midspring, when the first migrant ruby-throated hummingbirds return from Mexico at the end of April, through late fall, when Spot showed up, there are a variety of flowers that are appreciated by these amazing little nectar-sipping birds. The list includes both native species and plants from Central and South America where our summer hummingbirds spend their winters.
Many plants are adapted to pollination by hummingbirds. They are all deep, tubular flowers, and most are bright red. But a few tropical species are blue.
Since hummingbirds can hover while they feed, flowers that adapted to them usually lack a convenient place for a visitor to perch. This discourages most bees and butterflies and helps the plant get its pollen transferred efficiently. Ecologists call this kind of assemblage of unrelated flowers sharing adaptations to specific pollinating animal a pollination syndrome. Most important, from a gardener's point of view, these flowers look beautiful to people, too.
The flowers in our garden that exhibit hummingbird pollination syndrome include hardy perennials, woody vines, small trees and small annual flowers. In spring, the flowers of wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), small red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica), and trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) are the stars of the show.
In summer, scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), standing cypress (Ipomopsis rubra), trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) and royal catchfly (Silene regia) are stars of the season, along with the long-blooming trumpet honeysuckle on our back porch trellis.
In early September, as most ruby-throated hummingbirds head south, the number of native hummingbird flowers dwindles, but we grow some hummingbird-adapted plants from other parts of the New World. Small red morning glory (Ipomoea coccinea) is a prolific annual vine from the Southeastern U.S. We also grow a hardy variety of California fuchsia (Zauschneria latifolia var. garrettii) from seed. Originating in Wyoming, this plant is the autumn highlight of our rock gardens.
Like many other gardeners, we grow quite a few tender annuals and perennials with hummingbirds, as well as beauty, in mind. Some we grow in large pots we can bring indoors on cold nights. We particularly like pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), salvia guarnitica, black and bloom (an improved version of salvia guarnitica called black & blue salvia), Wendy's wish (salvia coccinea), lady-in-red, and many selections of S. microphylla and S. greggii, which are very similar in appearance but not winter-hardy enough for us.
There are other plants from Central and South America that are fun to grow and are regularly visited by the hummingbirds that visit our garden. Two that we have just started growing in the last couple years are Cuphea millionaire and candy corn vine (Manettia luteorubra), also known as cigar flower or firecracker vine. We like them because they look good, and the hummers like them, too.
Writing about and selecting the pictures has made me feel a little bit warmer and reminded me that spring will return. I hope looking at these flowers has made you feel a little bit warmer, too.
Mike Slater is president of the Baird Ornithological Club and a member of the Mengel Natural History Society of Berks County and the Muhlenberg Botanic Society of Lancaster. He lives in Brecknock Township. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.