On the garden magic scale, butterflies rank pretty high, but I think hummingbirds stand even higher. On a normal spring or summer day—provided that your chosen habitat is not a glass office tower—you will probably catch a glimpse of a butterfly, even if it is only a common cabbage white. The arrival of a hummingbird, on the other hand, is not an everyday thing, unless you are very lucky.
When the small birds do arrive, you have to look sharp as they speed through the landscape and pause to hover over individual flowers. Hummers are tiny, only 3.5 inches long, with a wingspan of about 4.3 inches, and they move so fast that you may never even see their slender wings at rest. The ruby-throated species–Archilochus colubris—is the predominant one in the eastern half of North America and has the largest range of any hummingbird species. Always fashionable, ruby throats are especially à la mode right now, with their metallic green top feathers and contrasting grayish plumage underneath. As with many bird species, the males are gaudier than the females, each sporting a bright red throat patch.
That gaudiness helps them attract mates for the brief encounters that result in more hummingbirds. Hummers mate for seconds, not for life, and the male does not stay around for nest construction, egg-sitting, feeding of the young or spousal support of any kind. Gorgeous though they are, hummingbirds are also solitary and tend to guard their individual territories ferociously. The females minister to the chicks, which are fledged after about three weeks.
Inevitably gardeners ask, “How do I attract hummingbirds to my garden?” Some people swear by feeders containing a sugar solution that mimics the birds’ preferred flower nectar. But you don’t need to invest in a feeder. Hummingbirds favor some of the same conditions as other birds: ample cover in the form of mixed plantings of trees, shrubs and perennials; a source of water; and abundant food plants.
If you are choosing annuals and perennials for this coming spring and summer, consider those with tubular flowers, like members of the mint family. The tubes, either tiny or somewhat larger, harbor the high calorie nectar the little birds need to sustain all that high-speed flight. By virtue of adaptation, hummingbirds sport long, flexible tongues that facilitate nectar extraction.
Agastache or hummingbird mint, comes by its nickname honestly, providing great color in beds or containers and lots of nectar. Salvias or sages do the same thing and decorative varieties abound in the marketplace. Bee balm or monarda is not just for bees; hummingbirds will also sip from the blooms. If you have vertical space, try trumpet honeysuckle or Lonicera sempervirens, which is not invasive like its Asian cousin, Japanese honeysuckle, but provides the same kind of abundant, tubular flowers. For those with strong support structures, lots of room and the discipline to keep a rambunctious plant properly pruned, trumpet creeper—Campsis radicans—with its ferny foliage and bold orange or yellow tubular flowers, is a good hummingbird lure. It can even be grown in tree form, if you start pruning and training early and don’t let up.
In late summer, nectar from scarlet cardinal flower or Lobelia cardinalis, keeps the hummingbirds going as they begin to think about their lengthy annual migration to Mexico and Central America. The same is true of the currently-popular penstemon and wild jewelweed, which sometimes goes by the evocative nickname “touch-me-not”.
If you decide to buy a feeder, make sure it is a type that you can clean easily and thoroughly. The sugar solution is a snap—four parts water to one part plain white sugar. Since flower nectar is a clear substance, there is no need to add coloring to the nectar-analog that you make up for your feeder.
Throughout history, humans have deliberately fermented sugar and water to make alcohol. This is not a good idea for hummingbirds, so empty, clean and refill the feeder often in summer.
Some people might be surprised to know that hummingbirds do not live by nectar alone. New mothers need protein in the form of small insects and spiders to nourish eternally hungry chicks. Even when they are not in parenting mode, adult hummers treat themselves to some of the same kinds of victuals. To keep the food chain safe, abstain from pesticides and herbicides in the garden.
Right now, still in the throes of winter’s weakening embrace, we can only dream about hummingbirds. But simple exercises, like flexing our credit cards and ordering hummer-friendly plants, will help make those dreams a reality when the weather warms up.