Extension Educator, Horticulture
How glorious to catch a glimpse of true flights of fancy–tiny beautiful hummingbirds. Although we won't get the large numbers or variety of hummingbirds found in the western United States, we can still be rewarded with the beauty and personality of the ruby-throated hummingbird in our Midwestern gardens.
Hummingbirds require nectar to fuel their constantly moving bodies. They gracefully hover over flowers using their tongues to enjoy the sweet nectar deep in the flowers. Hummingbird flowers are typically tubular and red, although bright orange or pink will work. I have even seen them on my blue columbine. Hummingbirds supplement their diets with insects including aphids and thrips.
Great hummingbird flowers are also great garden plants. Be sure to include flowers that bloom at different times from spring until fall. The little guys actually do perch so include a trellis or shrubby area near the flowers.
Two perennial rambling vines include red trumpet honeysuckle and trumpet vine. Trumpet honeysuckle blooms prolifically in late spring and sporadically throughout the summer with red to orange to yellow flowers. It flowers best in full sun, but will tolerate shade. 'Magnifica' has bright red two-inch long flowers with yellow interiors. An outstanding vining honeysuckle is 'Goldflame' with its carmine buds and yellow centers.
Trumpet vine or trumpet creeper is a vigorous growing vine. In Michael Dirr's book Manual of Woody Landscape Plants he describes trumpet vine: "If you can not grow this, give up gardening; grows in any soil and also prospers in sidewalk cracks". The hummingbirds enjoy its orange to scarlet trumpet shaped flowers. 'Crimson Trumpet' and 'Praecox' have bright red 2 1/2 to 3 inch long flowers.
Columbine is an attractive easy to grow perennial flowering late spring to early summer. It starts easily from seed and will often reseed in the garden. Canadian columbine is the native variety.
Cardinal flower is an intense red and some varieties have red leaves. Unfortunately cultivated varieties are bred for looks and not the quality of nectar, so it is best to have the common species predominate. Cardinal flowers prefer light shade and moist soils. The red flowers are atop a three to four feet tall plant blooming in early to late summer.
A native annual, jewelweed, has orange or yellow summer flowers. It normally grows in shady moist areas and will reseed itself each year. Other annual plants for a hummingbird garden include red petunias and fuchsias.
Other perennial plants reported to be good for hummingbirds include butterfly bush, catnip, delphinium, hollyhock, hosta, lavender, lilies, monarda, morning glory, penstemon and red or orange phlox. They even like catalpa trees.
Hummingbird feeders supplement the flower nectar. Feeders should be placed near perch areas and in the shade to keep the sugar solution from spoiling.
Commercial foods are available, but you can make your own. Mix one part white granulated sugar to four parts water; boil the solution for one or two minutes. Fill the feeder and store the remaining in the refrigerator. There is no need to add red food color. Be sure to change the solution in the feeder every three days or it may spoil. Periodically clean the feeder with hot water.
Hummingbirds migrate north as the weather warms and arrive here from mid to late April when they breed. Gardens with wooded shrubby areas may actually entice some nesting hummingbirds. They begin migrating south for the winter from mid-August through early October. Some ruby throats fly across the Gulf of Mexico to get to winter homes in Central America. Contrary to popular belief, feeders will not keep hummingbirds from migrating south. It just means they can fuel up on the way.