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Gardening is for the Birds ~ Part 2: Hummingbirds

Posted Apr 01 2009 1:45pm

Thyme for the Garden Header

My first up-close and personal encounter with God's tiny winged wonders occurred while I sat on my front stoop in San Antonio, Texas. As I sipped my tea and read my devotions I noticed a brilliant feathered jewel glittering just to the left of my peripheral vision.

When I tilted my head ever so slightly to get a better view, the male hummingbird zipped away from the feeder to hover inches from my eyes. We gazed at each other for a bit then he won the staring contest by chirping and coming closer. I blinked, then closed my eyes when I saw just how close his long, pointy beak was.

Hummingbird with Butterfly Bush. Photo by Steve My new friend and I had many such encounters, although I was too intimidated to stare directly at him when he would zoom in closer. I settled for watching him through my eyelashes. I have been hooked on hummingbirds ever since.

Most birds are easy to entice into the yard with a simple feeder, but hummingbirds take a bit of coaxing. They won't settle for a feeder that is sporadically maintained. After a few disappointing visits, they will fly off to more nectar-filled places.

Hummingbirds enjoy nectar from a wide variety of flowers. Planting a small hummingbird garden takes minimal effort and the reward are spectacular. Even small space gardeners can lure hummers right up to the porch with well-planted hanging pots and a simple nectar feeder filled with a sugar-water solution.

Hummingbirds do not have a well-developed sense of smell. They depend on their eyes to guide them to nectar-rich flowers. They can spot red flowers from great distances, which is why most hummingbird feeders feature red on the feeding ports. When planting for hummers, be sure to include a variety of red flowers and ensure that you choose enough to guarantee blooms from spring through fall.

Gardening for Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds love all the flowers traditionally used in hanging pots. For a unique treat, hang a pot of fuchsia and watch the hummers hover and flit upside down at each flower pendant. Hummingbirds are able to fly up, down, forward, backward, and sideways. They can also stop in midair, just like helicopters. Since their wings beat 60 to 200 times per second, they need lots of energy supplying food sources.

Consider the following when planning your hummingbird buffet:

Color: the majority of plants that attract hummingbirds have red or orange flowers. This helps cut down on competition with insects for the nectar as red appears nearly black and unattractive to most insects.

Quick tip if you love your mail carrier (I'm married to one!): If you must have flowers around your mail box, remember to use red and orange flowers and no white, yellow, or blue. That way your mail carrier won't have to worry so much about stings from wasps and bees when he/she opens your mail box. And you get the benefit of luring hummers right from the edge of your yard.

 Blossom shape: Nectar contained in a long, tubular blossom is easily extracted by a hummingbird, whose tongue can extend roughly equal to its beak length and reach where most insects cannot.

Nectar volume: Very tiny blossoms, such as those on a Butterfly Bush or Lantana may offer nectar but require many visits to make it worthwhile. Trumpet Creeper produces one of the highest volumes of nectar per blossom so include these and similar trumpet flowers. 

Water: Nearly all birds bathe in water, but hummingbirds are especially needful - sticky flower nectar left on feathers make them impossible to preen and can even cause them to fall out. More on this.

Hummingbird with Honeysuckle blossoms. Photo by Juliana for Hummingbirds

Hanging Pots and Porch Planters

Even if you are planting for your hummers in the garden, include pots around your porch and windows so you can enjoy the little flyers up close and from inside your home.

Annuals: Begonia ( Begonia species ), Cigar plant ( Cuphea species ), Cosmos ( Cosmos species ), Four o'clock ( Mirabilis jalapa ), Fuchsia ( Fuchsia  x hybrida ), Geranium ( Pelargonium  x hortorum ), Impatiens ( Impatiens species ), Lantana ( Lantana species ), Nasturtium ( Tropaeolum species ), Flowering tobacco ( Nicotiana alata ), Parrot's beak ( Lotus berthelotii ), Petunia ( Petunia species ), Phlox (Phlox maculata), Salvia ( Salvia splendens ), Scaevola ( Scaevola aemula ), Shrimp plant ( Justicia brandegeeana ), Zinnia ( Zinnia species ).

Perennials: Agastache ( Agastache species ), Bee Balm ( Monarda didyma ), Coral Bells ( Heuchera species ), Dwarf delphinium ( Delphinium grandiflorum ), Penstemon ( Penstemon barbatus ), Phlox ( Phlox paniculata ), Salvia ( Salvia subrotunda ), Verbena ( Verbena species ), Veronica ( Veronica species ).

Vines: Canary creeper (Tropaeolum peregrinum), Cardinal climper (Ipomoea sloteri), Clematis ( Clematis species ), Morning glory ( Ipomoea species ).

In the Garden Beds

You can use all of the above plants in your garden plus the ones below.

Annuals: Snapdragon (Antirrhinum species).

Perennials: Cardinal flower ( Lobelia cardinalis ), Columbine ( Aquilegia species ), English primrose ( Primula vulgaris ), Foxglove ( Digitalis species ), Red hot poker ( Kniphofia species ).

Vines: Scarlet runner bean ( Phaseolus coccineus ), Sweet pea ( Lathyrus odoratus ), Trumpet honeysuckle ( Lonicera sempervirens ), Trumpet vine ( Campsis radicans ).

Water for Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds prefer to bathe in water that is shallow and moving. You can provide this by having a shallow birdbath that is allowed to gently overflow on one side. Fountains with an upward spray will attract hummers too, as they will fly up and gently edge in and out of the moving water droplets. A fine mister such as the Leaf-Mister would be a special treat and your hummers might even sit for extended periods and just enjoy the light shower. A note of caution: Bird baths, misters, and feeders should be at least 4 feet above a cleared area, so that the hummers cannot be captured by cats.

For more information on flowers for your hummingbird garden, check out the plant profiles at our resource page Thyme for the Garden.

"Like flying birds so the LORD of hosts will protect Jerusalem He will protect and deliver it; He will pass over and rescue it" (Isaiah 31:5 NIV).

Next week we look at Butterfly Gardens!

Patricia's Sig

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