I'll be weeding the flower bed when I glimpse that sudden iridescence. Or I'll hear a thrumming humming. Is that a flying flower looping around the trumpet vine, darting at the lobelia? A big bee? No. It's a hummingbird -- four inches wing tip to wing tip, acrobatic.
Hummingbird visits seem entirely magical. Yet the facts of their lives are more fabulous than any imagining. They move fast to stand still, and even to fly backward, which no other bird can do. That humming is not a song but the rapid beating of their wings. They search out nectar with their long, curved beaks and tongues, darting into downward-facing tubular flowers that coevolved with them.
These smallest of birds fly enormous distances each year, their migrations synchronized with the cycles of the flowers and insects they feed on. Of the 16 varieties that nest in the United States, only the Anna's hummingbird stays put. Others, such as the ruby-throated or the rufous, fly from as far south as Central America and as far north as Canada and Alaska, pausing on their way in my garden, or perhaps in yours. But habitat destruction means that when a bird reaches its destination, the flowers on which it counted may be gone. This is where gardeners come in, offering tiny, vital safety nets.
Hummingbirds choose nectar-bearing flowers over feeders, but when none are in bloom, a feeder may be a lifesaver. These birds need a nectarlike solution of one part sugar to four parts water. The sugar must be white. The color red draws the bird in, and it can be on the feeder. Most important, the solution must be changed and the feeder cleaned with hot water every two days or harmful bacteria and mold may form. Knowing my habits (I am forgetful; I go away), I choose plants that sustain the birds instead.
In my Long Island garden, there is only one species to consider: the ruby-throated hummingbird, which loves the red flowers of trumpet vine, bee balm, and scarlet runner beans. Gardeners in the Southwest and along the Gulf Coast may be visited by many species all year, which feed on a wider range: honeysuckle, agaves, and columbine among them. David Salman, president and chief horticulturalist at High Country Gardens recommends beginning with long-blooming plants, such as agastaches and salvias, positioning a dead branch six feet or higher for weary birds to perch on during the day and giving them a shallow bowl to bathe in.
Russ Buhrow, curator of plants at Tohono Chul Park in Tucson, says that when he waters plants, hummingbirds land on his hand and play in the spray. "Opportunists!" he says with a laugh. Grateful, I think.
The sunset colors of these perennials and subtropicals will entice hummingbirds to your garden.
- Justicia californica.
- J. spicigera.
- Salvia greggii.
- Calliandra californica.
- Lonicera sempervirens.
- Aloe saponaria.
- Penstemon eatonii.
- Bulbine frutescens.