Beautification is a wonderful thing. Hanging baskets are gushing flowers from porches across Buffalo, and massive pots full of grasses and blooms decorate the doorsteps in the suburbs. Window boxes have sprouted everywhere from third-floor Victorian balconies to brick colonials across our gardening-obsessed region. For people, it’s all good. For hummingbirds, only some of your efforts count.
Gardeners, bird-lovers and most other people generally love hummingbirds. They are darling, interesting, amazing little creatures; attracting and feeding them is fun. What many people don’t know: As these rocket-speed fliers zip among the blossoms, they are important pollinators. More than 150 native plants depend upon hummingbirds exclusively for pollination, having evolved synchronistically. It’s a mutually beneficial deal: The plants offer sweet nectar, and the birds spread the pollen much farther, and during cooler periods, than insects could do.
As a result of this bird-oriented bias, over time certain plants developed long tubular flowers that discourage insects but favor birds with long beaks – a great evolutionary success story. The ruby-throated hummingbird (our primary species east of the Mississippi) might visit 2,000 flowers a day to drink nectar, and not only the funnel-shaped kinds. Hummingbirds also eat tiny spiders and insects for protein, and these creatures are likely to be available on very small flowers.
If you want to support hummingbirds – and the species faces many challenges in this era of disappearing natural habitat – you can do several things:
• Provide nectar in the form of flowers.
• Keep trees and shrubs on your property for nesting, hiding and perching. (Orchards, hardwood trees, forest edges are valuable habitats.)
• Provide water for drinking as well as cleaning sticky beaks; a misting or bubbling fountain is preferred.
• Support science-based, conservation efforts on behalf of habitat protection. Join the Audubon Society’s citizen-science project that is tracking the effects of climate change on hummingbird feeding and migration patterns. Visit http://birds.audubon.org/hummingbirds.
• If you offer hummingbird feeders, clean them every three days; bacteria and molds on dirty feeders sicken the birds. (Feed with one part refined sugar to four parts water, boiled. Do not use honey or other sweeteners.)
Plants for hummers
Gardeners’ testimonials and lists from agricultural colleges agree: Red and orange colors attract hummingbirds, and tubular-shaped flowers trump most others. Choose the plants below here first, to pull the birds into your yard. Once they know the restaurant, they will dine regularly no matter what color the flowers.
It’s important to choose plants for a nonstop sequence of bloom. Mix annuals in with perennials, for dependable continuous flowering. Include some native species, as they often have more pollen and nectar or more useful flower shapes or sizes. As widely variable climate patterns cause some plant species to flower earlier than normal (or sometimes later, as in this season), our flowers could play a valuable role.
Some known hummingbird attracters are below, the asterisk indicating extreme favorites.
(Nomenclature note: Latin names are in italics; common names or Latin names that are used commonly are not italicized – the latter group quite variable.)
Annuals: *Abutilon (Flowering Maple); Alstromeria; *Cigar plant; Cleome; Clerodendrum (Bleeding Heart Vine); Dahlia; Fuchsia; Geraniums; Gladiolus; Lantana; Morning Glory; Nicotiana; Pentas; Pineapple Sage; Petunia; Rosemary; *Shrimp Plant; Verbena, and Zinnia.
Perennials, shrubs: Agastache foeniculum (Anise Hyssop); Ajuga; Alliums (with bell-shaped flowers); Aquilegia (Columbine); *Asclepias (Milkweeds, Butterfly Weed) – also essential for monarch butterflies; Astilbe; Buddleia (Butterfly Bush); Crocosmia; Delphinium; Dianthus; Dicentra (Bleeding Heart); Echinacea purpurea (Coneflower); Hemerocallis (Daylily); *Heuchera (Coral Bells); Hollyhock; *Horse Chestnut Tree; Hosta; Iris; Kniphofia (Red Hot Poker); Lavender; Liatris; Lilac; Lobelia cardinalis; Lonicera (Honeysuckle Vine); Lupine; *Monarda (Bee Balm); *Penstemon; Phlox; Physostegia (Obedience plant); Rose of Sharon; Salvia; *Trumpet Vines, and Weigela.
When we help hummingbirds, we are also helping butterflies and other pollinators since many of the same flowers provide nectar or pollen. We are also helping ourselves. We need pollinators to maintain ecosystems and ultimately the world’s food. And we also need to smile – a natural response to seeing a hummingbird among the flowers. (For more information visit hummingbirdsociety.org.)
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.