Gardening for Hummingbirds
Many gardeners would like to attract hummingbirds, but are eager to do more than hang hummingbird feeders. Indeed, those feeders can attract bears, too, so a natural route for feeding and attracting these beauties is looking more and more desirable! Knowing a bit about hummingbirds and their needs can help you to design a hummingbird-friendly habitat in your yard.
Let’s start with a few hummingbird basics. There are no hummingbirds in Europe or Asia; all species of hummingbirds live in North America, Central America, or South America. Most species live near the equator, where there are nectar-rich flowers year-round. But some species migrate, heading to North America in spring and returning to their warmer digs in early fall. That’s the case with the only species that nests in our area — the ruby-throated hummingbird.
Basic requirements: food, water, shelter, perches and nesting sites.
In order to create a hummingbird habitat, a gardener needs to provide for their basic needs: food, water, shelter from predators, perches, and nesting sites.
These tiny energetic dynamos require lots of sustenance. A major source is flower nectar, and as a result, hummingbirds are pollinators. Their long beaks and tongues reach into tubular flowers for nectar, and they pick up pollen on their beaks and feathers. Having almost no sense of smell, a hummingbird uses vision to find nectar-rich flowers. And being fast flyers, they depend on bright colors to alert them to a nectar source.
As most of us have observed, hummingbirds are particularly attracted to tubular-shaped flowers in shades of red and orange, though they will feed on flowers of other colors as well. This affinity is the result of coevolution or co-adaptation between the hummers and the plants in their habitats. Both flowers and hummingbirds benefit when a hummingbird sips a flower’s nectar. Consequently, different species of hummingbirds have differently-shaped beaks that evolved to allow them to drink from a certain kind of flower. In return, the flower species it feeds from has evolved to produce nectar especially tasty to hummingbirds and to prevent insects from stealing it.
Three other flower characteristics that attract hummingbirds (and play a part in the coevolution of hummers and flowers) are nectar concentration, nectar volume, and the length of the flower tube (the corolla if you want to be scientific). Nectar consists mainly of sugar, water and salts. Hummers prefer flowers with a nectar concentration of 20-30% and with a plentiful nectar supply. The long flower tube helps to ensure that competition for nectar from other pollinators is limited. https://extension.tennessee.edu/publications/Documents/W305.pdf
You may want to use artificial feeders as a supplement in late summer to early fall as hummingbirds prepare for the long flight back to Central America. A simple recipe for artificial feeders is to add 1 part table sugar to 4 parts boiling tap water and boil for 2 minutes. Do not use honey (fermented honey can cause a fatal fungal disease), artificial sweeteners, or red food dye. Fill feeders with cooled mixture and change it about every 3 days. It is essential to hummingbird health to clean the feeder before adding a new supply. Some newer hummingbird feeders can be washed in the dishwasher. You can hand wash them with soapy water, but be thorough and scrub the small parts. Alternatively, you can use a weak bleach solution to sterilize the feeder. Remove the plastic flowers and scrub inside them with a small brush. Make sure to rinse all parts thoroughly before refilling with sugar solution. Keep in mind that feeders may attract bees, yellow jackets, wasps, hornets, ants, or other unwanted species.
Hummingbirds need more than nectar. In fact, insects make up 50% of their diet (75% during nesting season), so you want to encourage insects in your yard. That’s right; encourage insects. Ruby-throats eat mosquitoes, spiders, gnats, fruit flies, small bees, larvae, aphids and insect eggs, and they look for them in flowers and on plant foliage or bark. In early spring, hummingbirds eat the insects that are attracted to sap from holes drilled in trees by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. You can encourage insects to live in your yard by avoiding the use of pesticides and by using plants that attract insects, including native grasses. Almost any type of plant will do. For example, purple coneflowers and bee balm both produce nectar that attracts many small insects suitable for hummingbird food.
Like most birds, hummingbirds like water, though bird baths are often too deep for them, so very shallow bird baths are sometimes recommended. Just remember to keep them clean. On that subject, see “Creating a Bird-Friendly Garden,” https://piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/creating-a-bird-friendly-garden/.
Even better than a bird bath, hummers love to play in spraying or dripping water. I made this joyous discovery last summer while watering a flower bed with a spray hose. Suddenly there were several hummingbirds frolicking in the mist, affording me an opportunity for close inspection of the birds. There are hummingbird misters on the market, so you may want to look into buying one. If you’re handy, you might consider making your own. Here’s a video of a homemade bath complete with splashing water, and even if you’re not going to make it, you’ll love watching the hummingbirds at play in it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vsXFH0YbZE
NESTING SITES AND PERCHES
Ruby-throated hummingbirds often nest in or near forests and woodlands during spring. Their tiny nests are built from thistle, dandelion down, soft plant fibers, tree sap, and animal hair. Hummers use stretchy spider webs to hold these nesting materials together, often covering them with lichen for camouflage. The preferred location for a nest is often the fork of a downward-sloping tree branch with plenty of leaves above as protection from predators. Don’t worry if you don’t live near a forest; many urban dwellers have successful hummingbird habitats.
You can recreate these conditions by having a mix of tall trees, shorter trees, shrubs, along with lots of native plants that flower at different times. The mix of heights allows the hummingbird to choose a protected nesting spot as well as safe perches for resting. All that speedy flying is tiring, so a safe resting spot is essential. And these tiny birds do have predators, the major one being cats. Some people stick a tree branch in the ground, since perching at the top of a branch is a favorite with hummingbirds. Also, leave the outdoor spider webs alone and available for the nests.
Add as many of these elements as possible to your yard and you’ll soon be hosting hummers. You can explore one gardener’s hummingbird habitat via this PBS video: https://www.pbs.org/video/the-wisconsin-gardener-an-urban-hummingbird-garden/. Even a patio or balcony can be hummingbird habitat; try adding plants for hummingbirds to a window box or container on your deck or patio, where you’ll be able to watch their antics up close. Here’s a video on that subject: https://www.pbs.org/video/the-wisconsin-gardener-container-plants-that-attract-hummingbirds/
Plant Choices and Lists
Be sure to include nectar-rich flowers with differing bloom times, and aim to have at least one blooming throughout the hummingbird season. Plant these flowers in large groups so that they’re easier for a flying hummingbird to spot; this also allows a hummer to use less energy in gathering nectar.
Some hummingbird afficionados plant nectar-rich flowers native to Central or South America — the hummers’ winter habitat. For a list of warm-climate nectar-rich plants for hummingbirds, see the plants marked with an asterisk at http://www.hummingbirdsociety.org/hummingbird-flowers/. You’ll find some of these on the list of annuals and tender perennials below.
Extensive lists of plants that attract hummingbirds are available in several of the publications listed in the Sources section. The following list, which concentrates on native plants, will serve as a starting point.
Plant Bloom Time Culture
|coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)||March-July||sun, partial shade,
|fire pink (Silene virginica)||April-June||sun to partial shade, easy to grow in well-drained soil|
|wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)||March-May||sun, partial shade
|wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)||June-September||sun, partial shade, adaptable|
|cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)||July-October|| sun, partial shade
requires moist soil
|gayfeather (Liatris pilosa)||August-November||sun, partial shade, poor to average soil|
Annuals and Tender Perennials
pineapple sage (Salvia elegans)
Autumn or Texas sage (Salvia greggii)
snapdragons (Antirrhinum spp.)
scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea)
flowering tobacco (Nicotiana spp.)
jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) (Virginia native)
cigar flower or firecracker plant (Cuphea ignea)
For more information about Salvia elegans and Salvia greggii, see “In Celebration of Salvias, http://piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/in-celebration-of-salvias/
Trees (native trees with flowers that provide nectar for hummingbirds)
Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra)
tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Now for a closer look at some popular hummingbird attractors.
Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
Lonicera sempervirens, commonly called coral honeysuckle, may be the best plant for attracting and feeding hummingbirds. This native climbs by twining, so unlike Campsis radicans, it will work well on fences and will not lift siding off your house. The flowers are tubular, coral-red on the outside and yellow on the interior, and appear in late and mid-spring, and then occasionally thereafter. Coral honeysuckle is evergreen — which is the origin of its species name — especially in the South. wildflower.org/plants. Outside the South, it is usually semi-evergreen.
For a more detailed description of coral honeysuckle, see the excellent article accompanying its naming as Wildflower of the Year by the Virginia Native Plant Society, Wildflower of the Year 2014 Coral honeysuckle, (Lonicera sempervirens). As indicated there, nine species of Lonicera can be found growing wild in Virginia; only three of these, including the coral honeysuckle, are native. The other six are non-natives, including the extremely invasive Japanese honeysuckle (L. japonica). Coral honeysuckle can be distinguished from other honeysuckles in Virginia by the combination of climbing habit, glaucous (smooth, hairless) evergreen leaves, terminal flower clusters, and red tubular corollas with nearly equal-sized lobes (parts).
Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans)
Campsis radicans (commonly called trumpet creeper) is one of those natives that can be invasive, and whose only good characteristic is its ability to attract hummingbirds. This is a woody, deciduous vine that climbs by aerial rootlets, which reminds me of English ivy and the miserable time I had trying to extirpate it from my yard. Thus, I can’t recommend this plant, at least not the species, since it’s asking for trouble. It spreads aggressively by underground suckers as well as seeds. Still, if you have a site with lean soil and space for spreading — perhaps a heavy-duty structure you’d like covered — it might be a reasonable choice. Some hummingbird enthusiasts do grow this plant, but in an out-of-the-way area. Alternatively, you could go with a cultivar, since they are apparently somewhat less difficult to control.
Campsis radicans Cultivars:
Campsis radicans ‘Flava’ — a yellow-flowered trumpet vine growing to 20-40 feet
Campsis radicans ‘Minnesota Red’ — a dark red flowering trumpet vine growing to 30 feet
Campsis radicans ‘Stromboli’ –Dark red buds open to orange flowers. Grows to 20-30 feet.
Campsis x tagliabuana ‘Mme Galen’ — an apricot-flowered trumpet vine growing to 15-20 feet. Campsis × tagliabuana is a hybrid cross between Campsis radicans (American trumpet vine) and Campsis grandiflora (Chinese trumpet vine), and it flowers through most of the summer. This is the variety most often found in the retail nursery trade.
A useful tip I came across is to plant trumpet creeper — if you must — in a location that will permit you to mow over the root area, a tactic which discourages the suckers. For an excellent comparison of this rampant grower with a somewhat tamer vine, see Crossvine: A Showstopping Native Vine, The Garden Shed, Apr. 2017.
Cuphea ignea, commonly called firecracker plant or cigar flower, is native to Mexico and the West Indies. It is a rounded, many-branched evergreen sub-shrub that grows 20-30” tall and wide. It has small, tubular, bright red flowers that bloom from late spring to frost. Because it is not perennial in our area, you can grow it as an annual or in a container, bringing it inside for winter. It performs best in average, medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun, though it tolerates part shade. It is easily grown from seed started indoors 10-12 weeks before last spring frost date. It tolerates high summer heat and some drought, but performs best with regular moisture. If it gets leggy, prune it back a bit. There are many species of Cuphea and a number of varieties and cultivars.
The efforts you put into your hummingbird habitat will likely reward you for years to come. Many hummingbirds return to favorite spots year after year. Also, if you’re interested in hummingbirds and helping scientists understand them and protect them better, you might want to get involved with the Audubon Society’s Hummingbirds at Home, a citizen science project that collects observations about which plants they visit most often, among other things. http://www.hummingbirdsathome.org
“For the Birds, Butterflies and Hummingbirds: Creating Inviting Habitats, Pub. Hort 59P, Va.Coop.Ext, Hort 59 pdf
“Designing a Hummingbird Garden,” Audubon.org/15-ways-keep-them-coming
Ecoregional Planting Guides, https://pollinator.org/guides
“Selecting Plants for Pollinators: A Regional Guide for Farmers, Land Managers, and Gardeners In the Central Appalachian Broadleaf Forest, Coniferous Forest Meadow Province,” https://www.pollinator.org/PDFs/Guides/CentralAppalachianrx7FINAL.pdf
“How to Create a Hummingbird-Friendly Yard,” Audubon.org/how-create-hummingbird-friendly-yard
“Hummingbird Haven: Backyard Habitat for Wildlife,” chesterfield.ext.vt.edu/pollinators/hummingbird-haven-and-attracting-butterflies.pdf
“Attracting Hummingbirds,” Penn.State Extension, https://extension.psu.edu/attracting-hummingbirds
Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Ruby-throated_Hummingbird/overview
“Understanding Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and Enhancing Their Habitat in Maine,” University of Maine Coop.Extension, https://extension.umaine.edu/publications/7152e/