By Arvind Kumar
The world’s smallest bird, the only bird that can fly backwards, the animal with the highest heart rate (up to 1,260 beats per minute) – the hummingbird is one of the true wonders of the New World. While most are found in Central and South America, about 25 species of hummingbirds are seen in the United States.
East of the Mississippi, hummingbirds are not as common a sight as they are here in California, a rest stop for migratory species like Allen’s, Rufous, and Black-Chinned Hummingbirds. The species that Californians see most commonly is the one that lives here year-round: Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna).
Focus on increasing the “carrying capacity” of your garden – its ability to attract and support hummingbirds sustainably without additional human input.
It is easy to attract these winged wonders to your garden. Red plastic feeders filled with sugar water provide instant gratification. If you are using a feeder, the responsible wildlife gardener will also keep it filled, clean it regularly and protect it from ants, bees, and other uninvited visitors.
It is wise to focus on increasing the “carrying capacity” of your garden – its ability to attract and support hummingbirds sustainably without additional human input. Do this by planting the nectar-rich native plants that the hummingbirds have evolved with. As they feed, the birds also perform a vital function for some native plants that depend on hummingbirds for pollination.
Why do hummingbirds have a preference for red flowers? It turns out that the competition (i.e., insects) can’t see the red flowers as well as they can other flowers. In the hummer’s experience, more nectar is available at the red flowers than at the other flowers, hence its preference for red. Hummingbirds will in fact feed on flowers of any color, but will go to red ones first where available.
Here is a list of hummingbird-friendly plants, in order by time of bloom.
Hummingbirds love to feed on the upside-down urn-like flowers of manzanitas (Arctostaphylos sp). I have the bigberry manzanita (A. glauca), a 6’ tall shrub after 10 years, and franciscan manzanita (A. franciscana), a 1’ tall mounding groundcover. Many other species and cultivars are available, most with a preference for sun.
Chaparral currant (Ribes malvaceum) is a small shrub with fragrant foliage that has beautiful pale pink hanging flowers. Summer deciduous in the wild, it will retain its leaves longer in partial shade with occasional watering.
If you see the fuchsia-flowered gooseberry (Ribes speciosum) at the peak of its bloom in February, you will understand why early botanists regarded it as one of the most beautiful of California native plants. Hummers love its hanging red flowers. Plant in partial shade. Watch out for thorns.
Pink-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum glutinosum) is an 8’ tall shrub with fragrant leaves and pendulous pink flowers adored by hummers. Plant in partial shade. Winter deciduous. Amenable to pruning.
Black sage (Salvia mellifera) has intensely fragrant leaves and spikes of white flowers. Plant in full sun. Water sparingly once established, or not at all.
Sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus) is a small shrub to 2.5’ with yellow-orange tubular flowers. Plant in partial shade, prune by 1/3 each winter. Short lived in clay soil, but easily propagated from cuttings.
In the shade of a tree, plant hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea), an herbaceous perennial that spreads by underground rhizomes. Hummers love its whorled scarlet flowers. Cut down to just above lowest bud in winter.
Doing well in moist shady spots is western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), well suited for small gardens. Flower stalks rise above the foliage with dramatic red lantern flowers. Self seeds vigorously.
Liveforever (Dudleya sp.) is a genus of native succulents that bloom in spring with small yellow or red flowers loved by hummingbirds. They do particularly well in pots. Put some outside the kitchen window and enjoy spring feeding action up close. Use the Paul Heiple potting mix: 4 parts sharp sand, 2 part potting soil, and 1 part ¼” granite chips.
Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) is a 1’ compact subshrub covered with purple flowers in May-June. Fragrant minty foliage. Place in full sun. Summer dormant in nature, it looks better with light summer watering.
Scarlet bugler (Penstemon centranthifolius) has gray, fleshy, basal leaves topped by a striking 3’ tall flowering stalk in late spring. Plant in a sunny location in well-draining soil.
Found in nature along seeps, scarlet monkeyflower (Mimulus cardinalis) does well in the garden with regular summer watering. The bright green leaves contrast well with the red flowers.
The red tubular flowers of California fuchsia (Epilobium canum) are a hummingbird favorite. The plant loves full sun, and thrives on neglect. Cut to the ground during winter dormancy.
All birds, including hummers, need access to fresh water year round, so be sure to include a bird bath or water feature in the garden. Tall shrubs and vines make for good perches. Small trees provide nesting sites.
Hummingbirds use spider silk to bind the nesting material to itself and to attach the nest to the branch. A useful property of the silk is that it allows the nest to expand as the chicks grow. So spiders and their webs play a vital role in hummingbird ecology.
Flower nectar provides hummingbirds with energy, but a sizeable portion of their diet also consists of insects, especially during nesting season. So it is important to maintain a healthy insect population as well.