Category Archives: New England Hummingbird Plants

Small Habitat Gardens of Worcester MA West

It’s tough to drive safely around here when summer gardens are at their peak! I’m sure other gardeners can relate to what I call garden rubbernecking, when you really ought to be watching the road but wow! did you see those dahlias!! and WHAT is that gorgeous tree? oooh! beautiful hanging baskets! Recently I’ve been carrying a camera on my travels, snapping photos of front-yard gardens and the colorful containers and window boxes that are in their full glory right now in the Worcester area. Here’s a selection of some small urban gardens and container plantings that I consider habitat-friendly. In other words, they don’t just look pretty, but their flowers, seeds and foliage supply food, shelter, structure and other resources to a variety of birds, beneficial insects and even amphibians that will visit an urban habitat.

First stop on my tour is downtown Spencer, where Appleblossoms has beautified its corner of Main and Mechanic St. for the past several years with these stunning window boxes.The flowering penta, impatiens and bacopa bring hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators right into the urban landscape, and the lush and colorful display must cheer many an early morning commuter along route 9:

_MG_5990Next stop is a side street just uphill from downtown, where I noticed this sidewalk retaining wall planted entirely with colorful hummingbird and butterfly-friendly annuals, including spider flower (Cleome) and blue and pink salvia:

spencer-ch-stI’m sure this garden attracts hordes of hummers all through the day. It certainly brings color and beauty to a once-elegant but now sadly neglected area of Spencer.

On to West Brookfield, where the historic town common features several large flowering containers worth a mention. This one is made up of scarlet runner bean vine (its orangey-red flowers are a hummingbird magnet) and bacopa (with tiny white flowers that bees love), plus other foliage plants that provide shelter and a resting place for tiny forms of wildlife through the summer:

west brookfield containerI’m not sure who waters and maintains these containers, but their extra-large size enables them to withstand drought much better than your average patio pot or window box, which in hot weather usually needs watering once or even twice per day. When it comes to containers, the larger the better, unless you use self-watering containers or automatic irrigation.

A few miles to the east in Worcester, here’s a front-yard garden near Tatnuck Square where, instead of wasting an otherwise unused space on a bit of ailing lawn, the homeowners have filled the front with plants that flower right through the seasons, providing a small oasis of biodiversity smack in the middle of a busy city intersection:

tatnuck-streetside-gardenGranted, this might be a little too ‘naturalized’ for some urban tastes, and the curb is overgrown with weedy, invasive stuff that most people don’t want in their yards, but this garden certainly grabs the attention as you pass through, and might even encourage a ponder about the possibilities, and wasted opportunities, of the typical American front yard. There is probably more life per square foot in this garden than anywhere else in the city of Worcester!

Last but not least, I love this charming front-yard garden on a side street of Worcester’s West Side. You can see that this little garden is lovingly tended, and with its colorful variety of shrubs and perennials, I’m sure it has something blooming right through the season. The hydrangea, pink garden phlox, purple coneflower, coreopsis are all great nectar plants to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and the dense shrubbery protects songbird nests from bad weather and predators.The annuals sweet alyssum, blue salvia and orange marigold fill in the gaps for an eye-popping show of refreshing color during the dog days of summer. I’d love to live across from this gardener’s house!

worcester-west-sideSo…my message is that you really don’t need a lot of space to invite wildlife and nature into your lives. Whether you garden on a 1/4 acre or just a porch railing, you can bring the beauty and life-sustaining qualities of plants into the smallest of garden spaces. In the process, you’ll be making your little patch of the earth a little healthier, prettier, and friendlier to all those who pass…

Red Buckeye

Last week I did a talk on pollinator-friendly landscaping at the annual conference of the Ecological Landscaping Association. It was a great place to spend a Friday, because the conference and marketplace was something of a meeting of the minds of every 21st century plant geek on the right coast. Case in point: After I finished my talk, a woman approached me and told me that she grows Red Buckeye, (which I had mentioned in my talk as a good tree for pollinators), and that when it blooms, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are ALL OVER the flowers. She lives in central New Hampshire, which is a similar climate to our cold Worcester Hills river valley.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is an understory tree native to the woods from North Carolina southwards, so it’s not a tree you’d see in the wild here in Massachusetts. I’ve seen it growing at Garden in the Woods (the botanic garden of New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham, MA) where it blooms in early June:

Red-Buckeye

When you look at the flowers (below) you can immediately see why this tree is so popular with hummingbirds. The red tubular flowers are perfectly adapted for them to drink nectar from the base of the flower, using their extra-long tongues (pollinating the flowers in the process).

Red-Buckeye-closeupWhen choosing native plants for my own garden, I tend to look for plants that are native to the ecosystems of central Massachusetts. Plants that originate locally are best for a wildlife garden because they are adapted to meet the needs of the local wildlife who co-evolved alongside them.

But, when somebody tells me about a non-native Hummingbird magnet plant that is not invasive here, I simply MUST grow it!  The presence of feisty Hummingbirds in our garden is something that inspired my interest in gardening for habitat, so I’ll plant anything that brings ’em in. The Red Buckeye shown above is growing in the moist meadow-edge garden at Garden in the Woods….just the habitat that we have in abundance here!

Now, where can I find a Red Buckeye, either plants or seeds? It’s now on my Plant List for 2009 ….

Hummingbird Havens

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 rufousHummingbird, 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:

DCF 1.0Bee 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.DCF 1.0

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.

 

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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…)

agastacheAgastache. 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).

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.

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Red flowers of Canada Columbine, growing along with Wild Blue Phlox and Solomon’s Seal at Garden in the Woods, Framingham MA.

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:fuschia-gartenmeisterDespite 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!

penstemon-iron-maiden penstemon-container-cr

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.

agastache-rupestrisAt 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.

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These are just a few of the plants that make our little farm a haven for hummingbirds.