Few sights are more thrilling in the garden than to see rapidly moving hummingbirds darting among the flowers. So favored are the jewel-colored birds, people put out feeders to entice them into the landscape. Even better are gardens full of plants that provide flowers bursting with the nectar hummingbirds crave.
Creating a garden with plants specifically chosen to attract and feed these diminutive bundles of energy is not hard at all. The information needed to plan and plant gardens to successfully attract hummingbirds is presented in an excellent book “Hummingbird Gardens: Attracting Nature’s Jewels to Your Backyard” by Nancy Newfield and Barbara Nielsen, Chapters Publishing.
For many people, attracting hummers is as easy as hanging a feeder. But that is not always successful because many hummingbirds are not accustomed to using feeders. Numerous people have found that planting a garden full of hummingbird-attracting plants, in addition to maintaining feeders, is a more reliable method for successfully attracting hummingbirds.
As an added benefit, the flowers growing in hummingbird gardens attract and nourish a wide variety of pollinating insects, such as butterflies and native bees. There is currently a lot of interest in planting gardens to support local pollinator populations, and a hummingbird garden fits right into this effort.
Hummingbirds are powerfully attracted to anything colored red. Feeders with bright red parts are especially useful for enticing the fast-flying, tiny birds into the open where they are more easily seen. The sugar syrup dispensed from the feeder supplements the birds’ natural diet of nectar and insects with an unlimited amount of calories to fuel their rapid metabolism. The best formula for feeders should approximate natural nectar. A good, simple formula can be made at home by dissolving 1 part of cane sugar in 4 parts of boiling water. Allow the sugar syrup to cool before filling feeders. Several commercial nectars or mixes are currently on the market, but none provides better nourishment than a simple homemade sugar syrup.
Place feeders high enough so that domestic cats cannot attack the birds while they are feeding, and place them near windows for maximum viewing pleasure. Feeders are most effective when located within view of flowers that attract hummers.
The most satisfying method of attracting hummingbirds is to plant a hummingbird garden and provide them with their accustomed food – a concept proven quite effective in our area. A well-chosen selection of flowering trees, shrubs, vines, annuals and perennials can produce an excellent supply of nectar over a long period and beautify your landscape at the same time. Insects living in the plants and nectar from flowers provide hummingbirds with a complete, balanced diet. Because they obtain nearly all of the water they need from their foods, it is not necessary to provide them with drinking water.
Typical hummingbird flowers are red in color, have a tubular shape and have no strong scent. However, there are several notable exceptions to this general rule. Many plants with red flowers do not contain very much nectar, and not all good nectar producers have red flowers. Roses, petunias, geraniums and zinnias have brilliant colors but little nectar, while Japanese honeysuckle, which has fragrant, white flowers, produces abundant nectar.
Plants that produce an abundance of flowers over an extended period of time and those that require little care are good choices. When several color varieties of a plant are available, choose the brightest red.
Although hummingbird gardens are planted with the birds in mind, the abundant flowers and bright colors add a lot of beauty to the landscape. Many people will simply see a beautiful flower garden, but you and the hummingbirds will know better. Oh, and you should also see butterflies, which tend to be attracted to the same flowers as hummingbirds.
Pesticides should be used sparingly and only on non-flowering plants. Stick to pesticides low in toxicity, such as oils, insecticidal soaps and Bt. Never use systemic insecticides or rotenone on plants where hummingbirds may feed.
Recommended plants for hummingbird gardens
Trees: Crybaby tree (Erythrina crista-galli), Japanese plum or loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), mimosa (Albizia julibrissin), citrus.
Shrubs: Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus), Mexican cigar plant (Cuphea ignea and C. micropetala), shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana), firespike (Odontanema strictum), hibiscus (Hibiscus spp.), lantana (Lantana spp.), azalea (Rhododendron spp.), pentas (Pentas lanceolata), red buckeye (Aesculus pavia).
Vines: Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis), cypress vine (Quamoclit pinnata), trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans).
Annuals and perennials: Salvia (Salvia splendens, S. coccinea, S. greggii, S. leucantha and many others), pineapple sage (Salvia rutilans), iris (Iris spp.), red hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria), impatiens (Impatiens walleriana), coral plant (Russelia equisetiformis), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), gilia or standing cypress (Ipomopsis rubra), bee balm (Monarda fistulosa).
Dan Gill is a horticulturist with the LSU AgCenter. He can be reached at DGill@agcenter.lsu.edu