Originally published 2012.
Who doesn’t love hummingbirds? Not only are they one of the world’s tiniest wonders regarding their incredible flexibility in flight, they are absolutely beautiful. They are fun to watch, especially when there are two or more in the vicinity as they like to play and compete with one another. Some varieties “hum” loudly as they beat their wings at lightning speed and dart past you (hence their name) and some are a tad more quiet as they flitter about their business. One thing is for certain, they are attracted to red and reddish-orange flowering plants that have trumpet-shaped blooms. Of course, because hummers are tiny, the blooms of the plants they are attracted to are usually quite tiny as well. I often wonder how a hummer is able to garner enough nectar from some of the plants it visits, but then, there are usually tons of blooms per plant and the hummer will do its best to visit each and every one!
Hummingbirds will certainly visit flowering plants with blooms other than red, but as I mention above, red seems to be their preference. It is thought hummingbirds can only see in hues of red and green and since most parts of a plant are green, they are more able to pick out red blossoms at far distances. In my research for this post, I learned what I thought was an interesting aside – supposedly insects are not able to see the color red. (Ever wonder how someone can really KNOW this? It reminds me of a story my brother told me once when he was cleaning his bounty of freshly caught fish. I asked him not to cut their heads off in front of my little nephew because it seemed a bit too barbaric for a toddler to witness. My brother responded, “The fish can’t feel it, Cindy. They have no nerve endings in their head.” Tell me, just how does he KNOW this? I’m pretty sure he just wanted me to keep quiet and not make a fuss!)
Back to hummers . . . because insects apparently cannot see red, there is very little competition between the birds and the bees when it comes to getting nectar from red blooms. Another interesting tidbit about the difference in flower visits of birds and bees has to do with the shape of the blooms that hummers like to visit – i.e., trumpet. On one hand it is thought hummers predominately visit trumpet-shaped flowers because they have such long beaks and can easily suck up the juice. Actually, I learned hummers lap up nectar like would a dog, but at a rate about as lightning fast as they flap their wings. Apparently they don’t suck it up like a straw. On the other hand, there is further evidence of a lack of competition with insects in this area because insects know that if they crawl into a tubular-shaped, nectar-filled flower, they may never come out. Should they fall in, they’d most likely drown. This actually would be providing the hummer with a little extra protein needed to fuel their tiny bodies. Incidentally, hummers do eat insects now and then for this very reason as nectar alone cannot provide them with the nutrition needed to travel at such fast paces and far distances.
While there is an abundance of hummingbirds it seems in the rural and open space areas of the US, there often isn’t as great a showing in the suburbs and cities. However, should you happen to live in a more populated area or feel you are on the outskirts of a hummingbird’s migratory path (http://www.worldofhummingbirds.com/migration.php) you can still plant a few hummingbird-friendly ornamentals that will not only bring you a better chance of seeing a hummer, but which will also look stunning in your landscape regardless. The below listed plants are relatively easy to grow and maintain, and a bonus is they are re-seeding annuals or perennials thus, they will reward you with little flying gems year after year.
Cypress Vine or *Cardinal Climber
Yes, another vine to tout about! As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I am indeed a “vine person.” See my former posts about honeysuckle, clematis, and moonflower. Like the moonflower vine, cypress vine is a relative of the morning glory. While the blooms are similar in shape to moonflowers and morning glories, this is about where the similarities end. The blooms of the cypress vine are quite tiny and brilliantly red in color. (There is also a white variety I have seen recently.) Although the blooms of this vine are what we are focusing upon re the subject of hummingbirds, I must mention the foliage of this vine is extremely different from its relatives. The foliage of cypress vine is very dainty and fern-like in appearance. Another bonus to planting cypress vine is, in my opinion, that it is one of the fastest growing vines ever discovered. You can plant it now and in merely a couple of weeks it will be twining up your fence or trellis in bloom! It grows well in full sun but will tolerate part shade. It is just an overall beautiful, fast-growing, annual vine. With just about all things beautiful, there comes a caution. Cypress vine is a prolific re-seeder. If you don’t want the vine to sprout in the same area year after year, do not plant it – or at least be prepared to weed it out in years to come if you change your landscape plans.
*Cypress Vine and Cardinal Climber are almost identical in appearance and cultivation – the only difference I’ve been able to detect is the cypress vine has fern-like leaves straight from the stem (as pictured below.) The cardinal climber vine appears to have more defined leaves where the fern-like appearance begins. The important point to this article is hummingbirds love both the same!
On to the perennials –
I came to know about Turk’s cap when visiting the Caldwell Zoo in Tyler, Texas several years ago – a delightful and inexpensive East Texas excursion if you love both plants and animals. ( http://caldwellzoo.org/) Turk’s cap was planted in and around the displays and was magnificent. I had seen it before in small pots at nurseries but I had no idea the size and abundant amount of dotted red “Turk’s caps” it could produce! Turk’s cap is a woody, tender perennial that is native to Texas and Mexico (zones 7 – 11). In the southern areas of Texas and Florida, as well as further south into Mexico, it remains an evergreen shrub. However in North Texas, the plant will die back in the winter. If mulched well, it will most certainly return. Turk’s cap loves sun and lots of space. It will multiply every year so you can purchase a one gallon container now and in a couple of years it will fill a 6 X 6 space easily! I have read where Turk’s cap is best planted in a naturalized, informal garden and I must agree. It has far more green foliage than blooms – however the blooms are perfect for the appetite of hummers. In my personal experience, this plant is a sure way to attract hummingbirds. My boyfriend, Mike, wanted to attract them to his yard as he had never seen a hummer in his area before (and he has many beautiful flowers in his landscape.) We transplanted some of my Turk’s cap to his home, about 12 miles west and Ta Da – he had hummingbirds that very year visiting his newly transplanted shrubs!
Autumn Sage or Salvia greggii
This is another plant that I have personally witnessed the wonder of its attraction of hummingbirds. It is a small (2 – 3 ft) mounding shrub, and like Turk’s cap, it is native to Texas and Mexico. Also like Turk’s cap, it remains evergreen in the southernmost areas of its growing zones. It flowers in the same way as other salvias, producing long spikes of multiple, small tubular blooms. Varieties of Autumn sage can be found from deep red to pink to white. In the summertime, this shrub is often covered in blooms, making it striking as a specimen plant or when planted en masse. Autumn sage loves sun but will tolerate late afternoon shade. It also tolerates very dry conditions. My parents, living 40 miles south of Dallas in a rather rural area, have Autumn sage shrubs lining their sidewalk. Although my mom puts out her annual hummingbird feeder, it serves no competition when her Autumn sage is blooming. The hummers literally flock to those plants. (Yes, I am envious!) A caution with Autumn sage is this – as resilient as it is with regard to sun and soil, its limbs are extremely delicate. Just brushing up against the shrub will break them off. Although my parents have lined them along their sidewalk, it is recommended you plant this shrub in low-traffic zones.
Firebush is a tropical, woody perennial native to Florida. North to zone 8, it is a tender perennial if protected over the winter. Firebush needs full to mostly full sun. It is a wonderful plant to use in your landscape to attract hummingbirds as it produces an overabundance of long-lasting, bright red-orange tubular blooms. While not a vine, firebush actually reminds me of coral honeysuckle with regard to its blooms. I believe its foliage, having an orangish tint, is quite attractive as well. I have successfully grown firebush in both containers and in the soil. It looks amazing as a patio specimen. If you choose to grow it in a container, but sure to place it in a large pot – at least a 5 gallon. (Growing in a container will allow you to overwinter it in your garage or sunroom, offering a greater chance of its survival in zones north of 10.) If you find a permanent spot in the ground for firebush, just remember to mulch it heavily in the winter and most likely it will return in the spring.
Well, this wraps up my post – a longer one than usual, but hopefully I have inspired you to plant one or more of the above to create the perfect dining habitat for our hummingbirds. The very good news about all the plants above is that you can plant them now (late summer) and enjoy their beauty until the first frost. They are fast growers and long bloomers and even with the annual cypress vine, you’ll most likely see them all again next year and thereafter!
Bonus pictures! I caught a hummingbird on film this morning (August 31, 2015) at my Cypress Vine. Also, notice the Turk’s Cap planted nearby.
Until next time,