By Julie Boudreau
This spring I saw a male ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) going through my haskap (honeyberry) flowers in my garden. Its visit surprised me, because I had never thought that spring flowers would interest it. It’s most often seen in July or August when the perennial flowers are at their peak. This got me wondering about the flower preferences of hummingbirds. Here is the result of my research.
First, for Canadian readers, eBird tells us that the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only one to nest in eastern Canada, which makes it easy to identify. There are several other species on the other side of the Rockies. And the further south you go, right into South America, the more there are.
Sorry, dear European and international readers, hummingbirds are found onty in the New World.
Before revealing the identity of their five favorite garden flowers, though, let’s take a short look at the myths and realities surrounding the plants visited by hummingbirds.
The More Natural, The Better!
Try as much as possible to offer native flowers to hummingbirds. Indeed, throughout the whole process of hybridizing to make flowers bigger and more colorful, we often neglect the main attractive criterion for hummingbirds: nectar. Hybrids sometimes don’t produce any. The nectar must be as sweet as possible and be found in large quantities. The more generous with nectar a flower is, the more often hummingbirds will visit. Some hummingbirds will even become fierce defenders of their territory. Especially when they find a particularly nectariferous plant.
Tubular Flowers, Definitely!
There is a phenomenon called ornithophilic syndrome. It establishes the correlation between the evolution of the shape of the flowers and that of the beak of the birds. In the case of hummingbirds, their speciality is collecting nectar. And tubular flowers specialize in producing nectar. With it, they attract the hummingbirds that carry out their pollination. So, it’s true that tubular flowers are more interesting to these tiny birds. Also, with their very short legs, hummingbirds aren’t experts at perching while they feed. Instead, they’ve become experts at hovering and foraging in mid-flight.
Yes, For Clustered Flowers, But Not Necessarily Red
Research has also shown that hummingbirds prefer flowers that grow in clusters, as opposed to solitary flowers. This greatly facilitates their feeding by limiting movement. However, the belief that hummingbirds prefer red flowers over all others is not true. True enough, they do love red flowers. However, hummingbirds are also seen visiting pale yellow flowers (like the blooms of my haskap). And also pink, blue or orange blossoms.
We now also know that the younger a flower is, the more nectar it contains. Hummingbirds will therefore have a preference for freshly opened flowers and will shun flowers that are starting to fade. This explains why we often observe hummingbirds in the morning.
And now, here the flowers that hummingbirds prefer.
It’s not a widely grown perennial in gardens. But when it comes to attracting hummingbirds, it’s the big winner. It’s a New World native plant found between Colombia and southeastern Canada. Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is an upright plant with intense red flowers. Growing in wetlands in its natural habitat, it’s a plant that likes moderately moist soil in the garden at all times. Blazing sun and prolonged droughts aren’t its thing. USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9.
Bee balm, or bergamot (Monarda didyma) in all its forms will delight our little hummingbirds, as will its close relative, wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Lovers of indigenous plants will note both are native to Eastern North America. The globular inflorescences are perfect, and one can even guess about their sweet sap content, because these flowers are edible and taste like honey. To successfully grow bee balm, choose a location in full sun and apply a mulch to the base of the plants to keep the soil moist. USDA hardiness zones 3-9.
The sage family is very large. On one side, we have common sage (Salvia officinalis). That’s the one we grow as an aromatic herb. Although hardy to USDA zones 5 to 8, it doesn’t always bloom well in cooler climates. On the other, we find annual sages such as scarlet sage (Salvia splendens) or mealy sage (Salvia farinacea) that bloom abundantly all summer. Finally, some sages are perennials (Salvia nemorosa), most hardy to USDA hardiness zone 3 to 8. The best sages will bear tubular flowers about an inch (2 cm) in length. They’re the ones hummingbirds visit the most.
The magnificent flowers of columbine (Aquilegia spp.), with their intricate arrangement of petals and long spurs, are also very popular with hummingbirds. They prefer taller varieties and especially native forms, such as Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Columbines like semi-shaded locations in rich, well-drained soil and adapt to temperate climates (USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8). That said, in their natural environment, you often see them growing directly in rock crevices and scree.
Our final contender for Hummingbird’s Favorite Plant is a climbing plant, trumpet jasmine (Campsis radicans). It’s not as hardy as the others presented here (USDA hardiness zones 5 to 9), nor is it a trustworthy bloomer in the northern part of its range. However, it’s absolutely splendid and vigorous where the climate is milder. It can even be a bit invasive when the conditions are too favorable. That said, the bloom is spectacular. And hummingbirds love it!
Personally, I would add the tiny flowers of calibrachoa (Calibrachoa spp.) to the list, in hanging baskets, because they attract hummingbirds to my garden. Honeysuckles and penstemons aren’t too far off the big list of favorites. Moreover, there’s already a list of more than 150 flowers that attract hummingbirds in the Laidback Gardener blog. A reading of 150 Flowers That Attract Hummingbirds will allow you to enrich your collection and increase the frequency of visits throughout the summer.