Bling on the Wing: 12 Months of Flowers for Hummingbirds

The hummingbird is furious. The blossoms on the Mahonia x media “Charity” have faded, and the Ribes sanguineum is still hanging on the cusp of blooming. He has had to content himself with darting from Viburnum x bodnatense ‘Dawn’ to Mahonia japonica, with intermittent visits to the Sarcococca and Rosemary. His high speed foraging is only interrupted by attempts to chase off all intruders, including myself, from his territory. So he’s flashing his colors, trash-talking, and busting mid-air dance moves like a member of the one of those overly choreographed gangs from West Side Story. My wife thinks he’s adorable, but to me he appears to be a tiny, hovering, bejeweled, steroid-raging jerk.

It’s not his fault, of course. He’s just doing his job. And what a job it is; he lives to eat, mate, and fend off all competition from his turf. It’s good work if you can get it. Find a piece of prime real estate, declare it to be your own, and then yell “GET OFF MY LAWN” at every passerby while the ladies do all the laboring.

Western Washington hosts two species of hummingbirds, Anna’s and Rufous, with occasional drop-in visits by GPS-challenged members of our primarily Eastern Washington species, Black-chinned and Calliope.

Anna’s Hummingbird on Agastache  photo: Chuck Roberts

Anna’s Hummingbird on Agastache
photo: Chuck Roberts

Anna’s hummingbirds have adapted to our mild Puget Sound winters and have become year-round residents, while Rufous hummingbirds, like the Eastern Washington species, annually migrate to the American Southwest and Mexico during the winter. Rufous hummers return in late winter and early spring, following the bloom cycle of their nectar sources up the coast of California and Oregon all the way into Southern Alaska.

The females show up a few weeks later and begin constructing tiny nests made of leaves, twigs, feathers, fur, seedheads, and more. The nests are lashed together with spider webs, anchored to tree and shrub branches with sap, and camouflaged with lichen. Mating rituals are then commence, and eventually the girls lay two navy bean-sized eggs which hatch about 3 weeks later. The chicks are ready to fly in another 3 weeks, having been fattened up on a diet of nectar and insects.

Rufous Hummingbird  photo: Dr. Joseph Turner

Rufous Hummingbird
photo: Dr. Joseph Turner

Local birders and gardeners often supplement that diet with sugar water from feeders, but as a confirmed hibernating winter couch potato I am far too slothful to be counted on to faithfully clean and refill a feeder. I can barely be bothered to keep up with the dishes and laundry. Thus, I have opted to turn my entire garden into a year-round hummingbird feeder through the careful selection of plants that provide nectar every day of the year. I’ve got nothing against you feeder-folks, so don’t send me emails. I’d applaud your efforts, but I am also far too lazy to applaud.

Before we launch into planting suggestions, here are a few general tips for improving your hummingbird habitat:

Have Less Lawn

You’ll never see hummingbirds gathering nectar from turf grass. Nor will you see one building a nest on your lawn. Not gonna happen. Have all the lawn that you need. But have no more lawn than you use.

Use that Newly De-lawned Space to Plant Stuff

Lots of stuff. Tall stuff. Short stuff. Perennial stuff and annual stuff. The more the merrier. Trees and shrubs provide nesting sites. Many kinds of plants provide nesting material. And a diversity of plantings leads to a diversity of insects. Hummingbirds eat insects. Do the math.

Don’t Use Insecticides

As you may recall from the previous paragraph, hummingbirds eat insects. If you kill the insects, the hummingbirds can’t eat the insects. And you’ll have poison in your garden. Why would you want poison in your garden? There are thousands of plants that don’t require a gardener to engage in chemical warfare. Go shopping and buy some of those. Or learn to accept a little damage on your foliage. The world is an imperfect place, so lighten up a little. Pour yourself a glass of wine. Repeat as necessary. Abracadabra, suddenly a few aphids are no longer a big deal! Problem solved.

Don’t Worry, Be Messy

Leave your plants standing in the winter for as long as you can tolerate it. Those decaying leaves and puffy seedheads make excellent nesting material. When it’s time for spring cleaning, a chop-and-drop mulching system works great. Rather than hauling your trimmings off to the yard waste container, just cut them into 3-4” pieces and leave them in your planting beds. It’s nature’s way of mulching, and provides fodder for insects and the birds that eat them. And be very careful pruning during nesting season. Hummingbird nests are tiny and well hidden. I don’t prune much at all from February to late July, because I am a clumsy, visually-challenged dolt.

Water is Good

Hummers prefer to drink from moving water, but they will use a shallow bird bath in a pinch. They can’t really walk much, but if they have a place to perch they can dip their schnozz and slurp. A trickle spout or drip fountain is ideal. Or just point a sprinkler at your beds in the morning for a few minutes and they will guzzle the droplets off the leaves. I’ve even had them fly up and drink from a watering wand while I was hydrating my pots.

Keep Kitty in the House

Few critters are quick enough to catch a hummer, but cats are amazing predators. There are not many things more depressing than seeing a cat grab a female hummer out of mid-air at the peak of nesting season. Build your kitty a catio. It’s safer for your cat, and safer for the birds.

And now, to the plants!


Winter

These plants provide a much appreciated nectar source for our resident Anna’s and an early food supply for the migrating species.

Asian Mahonias

The hybrid Asian Mahonias (M. x media) begin flowering in mid-autumn and continue into late winter. They are indispensable nectar providers in my garden. Their parent plants, M. japonica and M. lomarifolia, are also excellent food sources that flower a bit later than the hybrids in my garden. Sun or shade, in any decent soil. To about 10’ x 10’ in about 10 years.

Rosemary

Many cultivars are available, some of which start flowering in mid-summer and continue until the following spring. “Arp” is still considered to be the hardiest cultivar, but almost all of them are reliable on the west side of the Cascades. Full sun, fast draining soils. Very drought tolerant. Will eventually reach 5’ in height.

Hummingbird on Rosemary  photo: Chris Bidleman Photography

Hummingbird on Rosemary
photo: Chris Bidleman Photography

Grevillea victoriae

Can be tough to find, but worth the search. Bizarre, spidery, red flowers from December into June, with sporadic flowering through summer. A member of the Protea family; don’t fertilize with phosphorus. I don’t fertilize mine at all. To 6’ x 6’ in ten years. Full sun, fast drainage, very drought tolerant.

Camellia sasanqua

The best of the Camellia clan. Flowers from November to March. Self-cleaning flowers means no deadheading. Morning shade to full sun for best flower production. Eventually becomes a small tree. Surprisingly drought tolerant for a camellia.

Others to try: Hamamelis, Corylopsis, Arctostaphylos, Arbutus, Daphne, Sarcococca, Rhododendron, Pieris


Spring

Spring is peak breeding season. A mix of native and exotic blossoming plants will provide a plentiful source of groceries for territory-defending males and harried, nest-building moms.

Native Mahonias

Our trio of Oregon Grapes (Mahonia aquifolium, M. repens, and M. nervosa) all provide the same butter-hued, nectar-packed blossoms as their Asian counterparts, and they pick up flowering right where the Asian Mahonias leave off. To 8’, 30”, and 18”, respectively. M. aquifolium can be aggressive in light soils, so give it enough space or it will take what it wants. (Put in on the corner of your property and share it with your neighbors!) M. repens wants a bit of sun, the other two are happy in part sun to deep shade. Best in loamy soils, but M. aquifolium does well just about anywhere except a parking lot.

Ribes sanguineum

One of the best; migrating Rufous hummers follow this shrub’s blossoms up the coast from Mexico in the spring before fanning out to the western Cascades. Full sun to part shade in any reasonable soil. To 8’ over 10 years.

Anna’s Hummingbird on Ribes sanguineum  photo: Annie’s Annuals

Anna’s Hummingbird on Ribes sanguineum
photo: Annie’s Annuals

Vaccinium ovatum

Another great native. Versatile and criminally underplanted. Sun or shade; drought tolerant in shade, likes a little water in full sun. Urn-shaped pink and white flowers in spring followed by delicious fall berries, which provide sustenance for a wide variety of critters, including me. Four seasons of interest.

Aquilegia

There are at least 5 dozen species of Columbine from all over the Northern Hemisphere. Self-hybridizing to the point of promiscuity. Try planting our NW native, A. Formosa, in the same area as A. chrysantha from the SW USA and A. vulgaris from Europe. You’ll get some interesting self-sown progeny. Or just try one of the seed mixes, like McKana Giants or Nora Barlow. Easy-peasy from seed or starts, foliage grows to 15”, flowers to 30”.  Sun or shade. Subject to leaf miner attacks, just cut back the foliage after blossoms if that bothers you.

Others to try: Dicentra, Rubus spectabilis, Oemleria, Ceanothus, Acer macrophyllum, Styrax, Trillium, Heuchera, Symphoricarpos, Geranium, Rhododendron

Summer

Summer flowers offer high energy chow for growing chicks and help fatten up the migrating adults for their impending southern sojourn.

Kniphofia

Red Hot Pokers are South African natives with spiky flowers in hues of glowing embers from May to August. Some cultivars will blossom into early fall if deadheaded. As long as your soil is unsuitable for crafting pottery, it’s suitable for Kniphofia. Full sun best, afternoon sun OK. Foliage to 2’, flowers to 3 or 4’.

Crocosmia

Another classic hummer favorite. Needs at least a half day of sun for best flowers. Some varieties can be a bit aggressive. Look for named cultivars like Walburton Yellow or Little Redhead, both of which stay politely at home.

Hummingbird on Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’  photo: Schlomo Shalev

Hummingbird on Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’
photo: Schlomo Shalev

Agastache

“Hummingbird Mint”, the common name, says it all. Doesn’t spread like mint, requires good drainage. Best in sandy soils or at the top of a wall or rockery. Currently undergoing its 15 minutes of well-earned fame, lots of new cultivars becoming available every year. Full sun. Scented foliage, will re-bloom until frost if deadheaded.

Lobelia tupa

South American native perennial with 6’ tall flower spikes that hummers cannot resist. Long blooming season. Undeservedly rare. A bit fussy, needs well-drained soil and a shovel or two of mulch during severe cold snaps. Worth it.

Hummingbird on Lobelia Tupa  photo: Bob Wigand

Hummingbird on Lobelia Tupa
photo: Bob Wigand

Annuals

I don’t grow many annuals (see previous remarks concerning laziness), but things like petunias, pelargoniums, begonias, and their ilk are such good nectar plants that I can’t resist popping a few into hanging baskets around late April or early May. Cultivars that don’t need deadheading like “Wave” petunias or Begonia boliviensis “Bonfire” will provide labor-free hummer food from late spring to frost.

Others to try: Callistemon, Lavandula, Penstemon, Perovskia, Hosta, Beschorneria, Albizia, Hyssop, Caryopteris, Lonicera, Heptacodium, Lilium, Rosa, Weigela, Dierama, Nicotiana, Lantana, Cosmos, Monarda



Fall

Fall bloomers provide sustenance for procrastinating migrating stragglers and also supply our resident Anna’s with a transition into winter nectar sources.

Hibiscus syriacus

Rose of Sharon is a fabulous old-timey plant from Grandma’s era. Covered in flowers from late summer to frost. Lots of new choices available, including some exciting new dwarf selections perfect for today’s smaller gardens. Full sun best, any soil. A tough hombre. Leafs out late in spring. Occasionally self-sows, but never problematic in my garden.

Fuchsia

The hardy fuchsias can start flowering as early as June, but the real show doesn’t start until mid-summer, peaking in autumn and continuing to frost. In a mild winter they can still be flowering at Christmas. My specimen of F. ‘Hawkshead” was valiantly producing a few straggling blossoms until nearly Valentine’s Day this year when our record breaking February snows finally brought the show to an end. Easy in sun or shade with average garden water. No wet feet please; happy in loamy garden soil, put in on a berm if you have clay.

Rufous Hummingbird on Fuchsia  photo: Total Landscape Care

Rufous Hummingbird on Fuchsia
photo: Total Landscape Care

Abutilon

A tender shrub for containers; a plethora of new “Flowering Maple” hybrids are available. Will generally require wintering-over in a tunnel cloche, under glass, or indoors. A. megapotomicum is marginally hardy outdoors in a sheltered location. Not actually in the maple family, but oh my, what flowers! Starts blooming in early summer, continues until frost. Hummingbird magnet.

Others to try: Phlox paniculata, Phygelius, Aster, Scarlet Runner Beans, Ceratostigma, Agapanthus, Salvia, Chelone, Hosta


Will all these dining options un-ruffle the feathers of your Rufous? Will they drive your Anna’s bananas with bliss? I can’t make any promises, but happy hummingbirds require the same things we do; food, water, and a safe place to raise a family. By providing welcoming accommodations and a year-round buffet of dining options we can all help soothe their tiny tempers, and perhaps even keep these amazing little airborne dynamos out of anger management sessions altogether.