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Attracting Hummingbirds

Among the most delightful visitors to the backyard garden are the hummingbirds. If you are planning a native plant garden, which of the following wildflowers would be the best choice for attracting hummers?

Foxglove Digitalis purpurea
Cardinal Flower Lobelia cardinalis
Woods' Rose Rosa woodsii

If you guessed the Cardinal Flower you are correct. North America's hummingbirds show a marked preference for red flowers. The brilliant scarlet Cardinal Flower is native to much of the United States (throughout the east and southwest), and is, in fact, built for hummingbirds. Its nectar is accessible through a long tube that is difficult for most insects to access, but nectar-feeding hummingbirds, with their long bills and even longer tongues, can easily reach the prize. In turn they pollinate these plants, and everybody wins. Other Lobelia species are good choices for a native-plant hummingbird garden in areas in which this species is not native.

Foxglove looks like a good choice, and does indeed attract the wide-ranging Ruby-throated Hummingbird. However, it is not native to North America, and in some places, such as the Pacific Northwest and California, it has become established in the wild and is considered an invasive plant. Woods' Rose may be a good choice for a wildlife habitat but it does not have the nectar requirements to sustain a population of hummers. One common feature of most of the best hummingbird plants is that they lack a heady fragrance. Scented flowers like roses have evolved to attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, while hummingbird plants signal their pollinators with their bright colors. Competition for pollinators spurred the evolution of these different strategies.

The best choices for a native hummingbird planting are red, orange, and yellow tubular flowers that are native to your particular area. Some favorite hummingbird plants, depending on your geographic location, include salvias, lobelias, Beebalm (Monarda didyma), Hummingbird-trumpet (Epilobium canum, also called Zauschneria canum), Ocotillo, columbines (Aquilegia) penstemons, hibiscus, paintbrushes (Castilleja), pinks (Silene), and many more. A common, often overlooked eastern native is the Orange Jewelweed or Spotted Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis), a veritable hummingbird-magnet. This plant springs up in a tangle at damp woodland edges and other shady spots, but no matter where, the hummingbirds seem to find it. This genus also includes species native to western North America that are equally attractive to hummingbirds.

Although some hummingbirds overwinter in southern portions of the United States, many others spend only the breeding season here. The time these hummingbirds spend in most of the United States is busy and fleeting: they establish territories, mate, raise the young, and then depart. These birds start arriving as early as February, and some individuals may remain until fall. A truly successful hummingbird habitat has flowers throughout their entire season, including enough late-blooming plants to provide migrating hummingbirds nourishment before they embark on southward journeys of hundreds or thousands of miles.

This article is excerpted from "How Wild Is Your Garden?", a native plant and wildlife gardening quiz. Take the quiz and learn more.

Visit our Native Gardening and Invasive Plants Guide to learn more about gardening with wildlife and the environment in mind.