Hummingbirds are one reason I really became interested in habitat gardening. Many summers ago, we bought a cheap hummingbird feeder and hung it on our sliding door. At the end of the season, we forgot to bring the feeder in for the winter and on a cold November day, I happened to notice a hummingbird at the feeder. Amazed, I looked in my Audubon Field Guide to New England, to identify the hummingbird, only to immediately realize that the hummer I had just seen at my feeder was not a Rubythroat Hummingbird, which is the only hummingbird species listed as being resident in New England.
After doing some research, I learned that my visitor was a vagrant, a migrating Rufous Hummingbird whose internal compass was out of whack and during his migration had ended up in New England instead of the tropics. Sadly, “Percy” disappeared after a few days, probably perishing in an early winter storm.
But I was hooked by this intimate view of a tiny creature’s struggle for survival, and I began to try to attract hummingbirds to our property.
The hummingbird diet is made up of nectar (from flowers), tree sap (from Yellow-bellied Sapsucker holes) and small insects. If your New England garden contains many trees, garden plants and shrubs, and you’re not a heavy pesticide user, your yard is probably already a hummingbird habitat. Tune into their world by listening for the “humming” of the male’s wings, and the chirping as they argue over territorial rights, and you’ll soon enjoy watching their feisty flying antics.
The Top 5 Hummingbird Plants at THB Farm:
Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)
This is by far our #1 hummingbird magnet plant. We have large sweeps of it on our pondside, and all summer long we watch aerial dogfights as hummers argue over its ownership! This year I am growing the native Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) from seed; it’ll be interesting to see if hummers like it as much as the (related) Bee Balm.
Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
Hummingbirds, with their long bills, have evolved alongside this New England native plant, finding the nectar prize hidden deep inside these tubular flowers and pollinating the plant at the same time. Trumpet Honeysuckle is a vine, and likes to ramble over fences, stone walls, or other shrubs.
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is a native New England wild flower that grows abundantly in cool, damp, shady areas. They are a great filler for a natural habitat garden, because hummingbirds love their flowers, and they are easy to pull out from spots where you don’t want them. Kids of all ages also love to POP the seed pods of Jewelweed! (Touch-me-not is another name for Jewelweed, and if you grab a ripe seed pod you’ll see why…)
Agastache. I grow several types of Agastache here, none of them native to New England but all of them hummingbird magnets. Birds also love their seeds, so Agastache is a great plant for a habitat garden. Lavender Giant-Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is a hardy western US native that reseeds abundantly on THB Farm. I have also overwintered Sunset Hyssop (Agastache rupestris) in a pot in an unheated workshop (see below). I find that growing hyssop can sometimes be difficult, it requires a lot of care and attention.
Canada Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a native columbine which blooms in spring, making it a valuable nectar source for migrating Rubythroats returning from the tropics to their summer homes up north.
Container Plants for Hummingbird Habitats
I love to experiment with hummingbird plants for containers. We place the pots near our porch and patio seating areas so we can view hummingbirds up close when they come to feed at the flowers. Here are a few of my plant trials from the past few years…
Hummers especially love red tubular flowers, which are perfectly formed to accommodate their long bill and tongue. Below is Fuschia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt‘ near our porch. With its red tubular flowers, it seems to have all the hallmarks of a hummingbird plant:Despite my nursing this plant all last winter in a sunny window (it is not hardy in the north), and lots of blooms this summer, I have not seen a single hummer visiting its blooms this year. Maybe because it’s right next to a hummingbird feeder with a perch…why waste energy hovering in front of flowers when you can sit for a drink? Japanese Beetles also seem to prefer this plant, so sadly, this plant is destined for my compost heap. Strange, because hummingbird advocate Jayne Amico of The Recovery Wing Inc. who lives in nearby Connecticut, has raved to me about how the hummers loved this plant.
Another hummingbird plant that I have been trying out in a pot is Penstemon barbatus ‘Iron Maiden‘. It is marginally hardy in zone 5, so I overwintered the pot in our unheated workshop last winter. It came back happily and bloomed its head off in its pot. The hummers LOVED it! Check out the inside of its flowers below. The striped pattern and beckoning shape of the flowers draws hummingbird straight to the nectar inside the flower like a neon sign on Broadway!
This type of unusual and colorful flower design is part of a plant’s survival strategy. By having the most noticeable flowers, the plant is more likely to attract the attention of a pollinator (our hummingbirds, for example) who will enable the plant to form seeds and ensure future generations.
At right is Sunset Hyssop (Agastache rupestris) which loves the good drainage of a pot. This plant not only attracts hummingbirds, but its foliage smells and tastes like licorice. You can even brew up your own tea from the leaves.
Salvia coccinea ‘Lady in Red‘ is not your average service-station Red Salvia. Hummingbirds LOVE this flower, and in the photo below (taken last year), they even ignored the nearby sugar water feeder to choose the ‘Lady in Red’ Salvia in a container at the left of the photo. Salvia coccinea is also suitable for beds, planted en masse.
These are just a few of the plants that make our little farm a haven for hummingbirds.