Birds Gardening Perennials

Five Flowers Irresistible to Hummingbirds

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.

Ruby-throated hummingbird. Image: Skyler Ewing on Pexels.

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!

Image: Skyler Ewing on Pexels.

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.

Cardinal Flower

Cardinal Flower. Photo: Chris F on pexels.

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

Bee Balm. Image: Veronika Andrews on pixabay.

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.

Sage

Image: Skyler Ewing on Pexels.

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.

Columbine

Columbines. Image: Glenn Marsch on flickr.

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.

Trumpet Jasmine

Trumpet Jasmine. Image David Lofink on flickr

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.

Julie Boudreau est horticultrice, diplômée de l’ITA de Saint-Hyacinthe. Elle œuvre dans le domaine l’horticulture depuis plus de 25 ans. Elle a publié une dizaine de livres et participé à de nombreuses émissions de télévision et de radio. Elle est enseignante au Centre de formation horticole de Laval. Passionnée de son métier, Julie Boudreau se consacre à promouvoir le jardinage, le design de jardin, la botanique et l'écologie, sous toutes ses formes. Un peu grano, écolo depuis toujours, gourmande et essayeuse, Julie est une épicurieuse avec un fort penchant pour tout ce qui se prononce en latin.

4 comments on “Five Flowers Irresistible to Hummingbirds

  1. Re “The More Natural, The Better! Try as much as possible to offer native flowers to hummingbirds.” I’m a little confused by that. Natural and native are two very different things. Personally, I’ve given up on the concept of native plants, as I am yet to hear a definition of a native plant that makes any sense to me. Local, sure, but native? Natural, as in avoiding sterile hybrids that might not generate nectar like the wild plant it was derived from, makes plenty of sense to me. Nonetheless, in my garden, the Canna “lilies” (i.e., Cannaceae, American but not native and certainly cultivars) attract hummingbirds the best!

    • marianwhit

      The rage about native flowers is based on supporting the whole ecology and its interrelationships, and it needs to be far more than “the current fashion”. Some of these deeply intertwined relationships we understand, but the vast majority we don’t…until we see domino-effect-like changes that are difficult to “fix” once we have introduced biological organisms which did not evolve together over periods of time humans have great difficulty comprehending.

      Consider the deliberate introduction of Asian praying mantises in attempts to not use pesticides as “natural garden pest control” in the 1970s. These large animals eat hummingbirds. Consider the accidental spread of fire ants that live in nursery pots, that can swarm helpless baby birds in their own nests. I saw a video once of a hummingbird that jumped out to its death in its agony. I don’t think we can NOT pay attention to these relationships and expect to continue to have these (and many) animals.

      It is hard to believe we have only known for about a decade, for example, how dependent such familiar birds as chickadees are on native trees…a back yard neighbor we know so little about but purportedly love so much! I am very glad we are starting to understand on a wider level how important native plants are, because as gardeners we are positioned to “mix in the natives” and do our gardening in more natural ways…nature does not come from the hardware store…it comes by being sensitive to the processes in our space that support plants that support insects, that support birds. And I think it is very important that people realize that feeding hummingbirds naturally is about plants too…these birds are how those plants reproduce (and in turn provide places to live and eat for many other species, such as caterpillars that feed many species).

      So attracting hummingbirds to a bunch of ornamental plants that never reproduce is an ecological dead end, AND the bird is spending its time and energy on this dead end instead of helping the plants that helped it survive through the millennia of their co-evolution.

      We are helping it shoot itself in the foot by failing to understand and appreciate indigenous plants and how plants and animals serve each other.

      At this point, where I live, so many plants have been introduced, that I am hard pressed to make room for native plants. Introduced plants have a HUGE competitive advantage over native plants because they are not preyed upon by the creatures that evolved with it. I try to balance the equation by being an introduced plant “predator weeder”, but simply making room, and preventing plants from changing soil chemistry to their liking and to exclude native plants (from their own ground) becomes harder year by year. It grieves me that few people try to understand that the plants largely determine what lives where on the planet, and our biodiversity depends on different plants being protected and stewarded in different places…because you cannot care for or save animals if their own home is no longer a recognizable or livable place.

      Furthermore, hummingbirds need more than nectar…a significant portion of its diet is insects…insects come from native plants, and diverse microhabitat conditions. It cannot make an egg from nectar alone.

      They have complex relationships with other birds, like the yellow bellied sap sucker which makes sap wells that trap insects. The sapsucker permits the hummingbird to feed on these insects, because the hummingbird defends the wells and chases off other birds. I have actually witnessed this in my backyard!

      For more hummingbirds (who does not want more, lol), you need the whole habitat…fresh water, dead logs, and yes, even spiders! The lichens and spider webs are essential to nest construction for these birds. There are probably other things that are important to it to, that we have not discovered yet. The key is to recognize that we don’t know it all, and try to see the world from the birds’ point of view. The work of Doug Tallamy and E.O. Wilson are wonderful primers to this subject. I don’t think one has to rip out everything to improve the habitat quality of a property…for example, I realized the ditches along my dirt road were full of pollinator diverting plants, and I manage them to give native plants some breathing room, and to serve the many specialist species that eat them. The quality of the bird action has skyrocketed, especially the warblers…when you start comparing the foliage that is being eaten on native vs non-native plants, you will “get it”…but you have to look, and take some time to learn what is growing on your doorstep.

  2. I know when to start looking for hummingbirds when the penstemons (orange, blue, purple, pink, red) start blooming. There are many other hummingbird attracting plants in the garden too such as delphinium (blue), Zauchsneria (orange), Monarda (bright pink), cuphea (Vermillionaire is a huge favourite), Red bird in a bush and many others. These are bold birds and often take on larger ones chasing them out of their territories. North Americans are so lucky to have these engaging little birds. They only live here and in SA.

    • I couldn’t find cuphea Vermillionaire anywhere this year. I usually overwinter cuttings, but lost them. No big deal, I thought, I’ll just get new ones in the spring. I’m now looking for sources for NEXT year! Fingers crossed!

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