Bartlett on Gardening: Hummers

A couple of years ago, we master gardener volunteers pitched in to help care for a butterfly garden located at a local high school. It was a hot, dry season, so we took turns watering every other day. Over the course of two months, I saw few butterflies, but a hummingbird zipped past on a daily basis. I thought he was being neighborly, but it is more likely that he was guarding his butterfly bush. I was glad to see him. Butterflies are wonderful, but my heart is with hummingbirds!

Native to the Americas, hummingbirds can be found from Tierra del Fuego to Canada. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the most common member of the clan to be seen in our area. They lead solitary lives, migrating to Central America for the winter and returning to spend the warm season in the place where they hatched. The males arrive first in order to establish a territory before the mating season.

Though we think of them as flitting from flower to flower, hummingbirds eat small insects and spiders as well as lapping nectar and pollen. Their long bills and tongues are adapted to drink nectar from long tubular flowers. Their favorite flowers contain sucrose rather than the fructose and glucose preferred by pollinating insects. They locate the flowers by sight rather than scent. Red and orange are their favorite colors.

To attract hummingbirds to your garden, plant a patch of red salvia, zinnias, cardinal flowers or bee balm to flag them down. Once in the area, they will also feed on other flowers. Columbine and carpet bugle (aka: ajuga, pictured at right) bloom in early spring. Phlox, native honeysuckle, petunias and butterfly bush provide nectar over a long flowering period, especially if spent flowers are removed.

Though I plant perennial flowers to attract hummingbirds, other people put out feeders. My neighbor, an avid birder, puts up feeders in late April. These are very beneficial to early arrivals because not many flowers are blooming. In autumn, when the birds need to bulk up for the marathon flight over the Gulf of Mexico, feeders provide a constant source of energy.

To make the feeder solution, bring a quart of water and one cup of sugar to a boil. When it has cooled fill the feeder and hang it three to five feet off the ground. The solution must be changed every three days, and the feeders cleaned weekly.

(Photo: Native columbine is also a hummer fave.)

Ruby-throated hummingbirds face only two threats in our yards: If you choose to feed hummingbirds, do not use insecticides. Hummers eat lots of little insects for protein, and pesticide residual will poison the tiny birds. The other potential threat comes from your pet situation: Housecats find hummingbirds interesting prey.

I created a hummingbird garden in the border outside the kitchen window. That way I can easily watch hummers zipping about feeding on the flowers. They seem to prefer taller flowers, only occasionally dipping down to sample potted lantana. They are drawn by tall red lobelia and quickly move on to tall phlox of any color as well as purple lobelia and orange cannas.

The view really gets interesting when a second hummer tries to feed. The defender is quite aggressive in driving the other one away.

Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home--particularly if it looks like it might be a hummingbird magnet.

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