The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

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Anxiously Anticipating Hummingbird Arrival

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Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

I scan my garden for the sure signs of spring – daffodils dancing in the divine warmth of a rising sun, grass greening with new life and a glimpse of true flights of fancy – pretty petite ruby-throated hummingbirds. Once I see these bejeweled beauties overhead I know a new season of growth is underway. By setting an enticing table in our landscapes of tasty flowers and adding hummingbird feeders we can all make sure this unique bird returns each spring.

Hummingbirds are found only in the Americas. In eastern US we have one species – the ruby-throated hummingbird. They migrate north from Central America as the weather warms, some crossing the Gulf of Mexico in one flight. They arrive in central Illinois from mid to late April. Landscapes with wooded shrubby areas and plenty of flowers may entice nesting hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds require nectar and insects to fuel their constantly moving bodies and their sassy attitudes. They determinedly hover over flowers using their tongues to enjoy the sweet nectar deep in flowers. Hummingbirds also catch insects such as mosquitoes, gnats and fruit flies in midair and may snatch insects and spiders from spider webs.

Hummingbird flowers are typically tubular and red, although bright orange or pink will work. The bright colors attract them to a yard. Once there, any colored flowers with nectar at the end of a short tube are fair game. I have seen them feeding at my blue columbine, blue salvia and white flowered butterflybush.

Great hummingbird flowers are also great garden plants. Many of the same flowers enjoyed by butterflies are also good hummer flowers. Be sure to include flowers that bloom at different times of the season such as the perennials early flowering columbine in spring and later blooming beardtongue, cardinal flower and salvia.

The native woodland columbine blooms as the hummingbirds arrive. It makes an amiable addition to shady gardens with hostas and ferns. The down-turned flowers give up their nectar to the acrobatic hovering of hummers.

Beardtongue also known as penstemon is another hummingbird magnet. The white or pink tubular flowers bloom May-June on 1.5 – 3 feet tall plants. Great cultivars include 'Huskers Red' (red leaves and white flowers) and 'Dark Towers' (maroon leaves and pink flowers).

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.

Other perennial plants reported to be good for hummingbirds include agastache, catnip, catmint, delphinium, hollyhock, hosta, lavender, lilies, beebalm (Monarda), and red or orange phlox. They even like catalpa trees.

A native woodland annual and an impatiens relative, jewelweed, has orange or yellow summer flowers. It grows in shady moist areas and will reseed itself each year. Other annual plants for a hummingbird garden include red petunias and fuchsias.

Both annual and perennial salvias are fabulous in the garden and provide long season bloom. 'Lady in Red' is a profuse bloomer all summer and although it's an annual it often reseeds. 'May Night' perennial salvia has been around for several years, but is still one of the finest blue salvias with a long bloom period and 18 inch height.

Hummingbird feeders supplement the flower nectar. Hang feeders near perch areas and in the shade to keep the sugar solution from spoiling. Commercial foods are available, but mixtures can easily be made at home. Mix 1 part white granulated sugar to 4 parts water; boil the solution for one or two minutes. Fill the feeder and store the remaining in the refrigerator. Don't add red food color. Be sure to change the solution in the feeder and clean the feeder with hot water every 3 days or it may spoil.

Plan now to add plants to your garden to attract ruby-throated hummingbirds so you too can enjoy watching the aerial acrobatics of these amazing summer residents. Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds is a great website for bird info and identification.

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