Amy Dabbs: Gardening for hummingbirds
Q How can I attract hummingbirds to my garden without using a feeder?
A: Many people have a hard time keeping hummingbird feeders full and clean during the spring and summer months. Even if you opt out of providing a supplemental food source, you can actively garden to attract hummingbirds.
Recently, I planted several autumn sage (Salvia greggii) plants in my garden. After finishing up, I sat down to admire my work. Within five minutes, a male ruby-throated hummingbird buzzed right up to those new plants and began sipping nectar.
Hummingbirds can move at up to 27 mph with wings that rotate like helicopter propellers, allowing them to fly in all directions, even backward. They often visit more than a thousand flowers each day to consume their weight in nectar. They also must rear their young, who require a lot of protein to thrive.
According to the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service, the keys to creating a hummingbird-friendly habitat include nectar-producing plants, insects and water. Urban sprawl and loss of habitat make it tough for hummingbirds to find a meal at times, but gardeners can provide a welcome oasis. While feeders are great for supplementing the diet of these busy birds, they cannot replace their need for protein and nutrients.
The U.S. Forest Service encourages gardeners to plant native, showy flowers en masse to allow more feeding with less effort, much like visiting a feeder that never runs out.
More than 150 species of native plants depend on hummingbirds specifically for pollination. Many of these plants cannot be pollinated by bees or other insects; the hummingbird's long beak and tongue are specially designed to reach the nectar of these native plants. They transfer the pollen on their foreheads while they move about the garden.
Hummingbirds often return to the same gardens each year, remembering where they previously had a meal.
Some favorite plants include coral bean (Erythrina herbacea), native pink azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides), swamp hibiscus (Hibiscus coccineus), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), blazing star (Liatris species), spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata), beardstongue (Penstemon species) and any one of the many salvias available (Salvia greggii, S. guaranitica or S. coccinea).
Better with bugs
Most people know that red, tubular flowers attract annual visits from ruby-throated hummingbirds, but many never consider their need for insects. Purdue Extension Wildlife specialists estimate that the hummingbirds consume up to 2,000 insects per day.
Keep this in mind when using pesticides in the garden. The S.C. Wildlife Federation warns that while consumption of common pesticides may harm the birds if ingested, they also can cause insect populations to drop, causing death by starvation.
To encourage beneficial insects for hummingbirds in the home landscape, try creating naturalized areas. Simply leave an unmowed strip of grass near a woodland edge. If a naturalized area isn't possible, incorporate native wildflowers that will attract beneficial insects such as purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma) or black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia species).
Hummingbirds also need clean, moving water, which gardeners can provide with birdbaths or fountains.
To create a hummingbird haven, plant a variety of native vines, shrubs and trees that flower from February to November.
Nectar from fall flowers helps them fuel up for the trip. Plant a progression of flowering plants such as Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) for spring, trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) for summer and trumpet creeper (Bignonia radicans) as a fall nectar source. Include native trees and shrubs such as tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), and bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora).
Amy L. Dabbs is the urban horticulture extension agent and tri-county Master Gardener coordinator for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension.