What Is the One Best Hummingbird Plant?

By Nancy L. Newfield

IF THERE WERE just one perfect plant for all parts of the country, for all situations, for the entire calendar year, I wouldn’t have much to talk about. Of course, there are a number of plants (or family groups of plants) that work well over most regions of North America, and every hummingbird gardener should have several of them.

Salvia splendens, a native of Brazil, is marvelously useful, and it was in my mother’s salvia garden that I met my first hummingbird, a male rubythroat. Vast trays of salvia are displayed in nurseries, discount centers, and supermarkets around the country each spring. These plants are easy to find and even easier to grow. Horticulturists have outdone themselves in developing varieties to fit every nook and cranny around the yard. Several varieties get no larger than six inches, whereas others may grow to be three feet tall. Salvias are grown as annuals in most places, but they can become small shrubs in frost-free regions.

The array of salvia colors is impressive. Red is a beacon to all hummingbirds and it has proven to be the most effective color for attracting them. These plants aren’t picky about their soil, but they like lots of sun and good drainage. One bed with half a dozen red salvias, or better yet, a dozen, will pull birds in for weeks. When the blossoms have finished and the plant is looking a bit ratty, snip off the spent flowerheads and another couple of blossom sets will spring forth.

The salvia family is large and extremely useful for attracting hummingbirds. South American anise sage (S. guaranitica), with its indigo blue flowers and aromatic foliage, is an excellent choice for many locales. Anise sage is drought tolerant, yet can thrive in a rainy environment as long as water drains from the roots promptly. It performs as well in partial shade as it does in full sun. And it can be grown as a perennial as far north as the Carolinas. Farther north it might need to be replaced every season.

Another good all-around salvia is tropical or Texas sage (S. coccinea). Native to South America, it has become naturalized in many parts of the Deep South. A lovely red form is marketed under the name “Lady in Red,” and there are several nice pink ones. Essentially, this plant is a weed, but an easygoing one. Grown as an annual, it produces a bountiful number of seeds. New plants sprout up all over the garden in southern climes.

Several other members of the salvia clan are widely useful. Mexican native pineapple sage (S. elegans) works well in California and the Southern states, but the brilliant red blossoms appear after most migratory hummingbirds have departed more northerly haunts. Autumn sage (S. greggii), comes from southwest Texas and adjacent Mexico. Numerous color varieties guarantee a blaze of glory from spring to early fall. Mexican bush sage (S. leucantha) makes a splash of purple in early spring and again in the late summer, just when migrating hummingbirds need their nectar most.

Canna lilies
Cannas are popular with professional landscapers because their red or yellow blossoms make stunning displays, yet the plants require little maintenance. These hardy plants are not picky about soil, moisture, or hours of sun. The large, floppy hybrid types are prettier than the small-flowered species, but often hummingbirds find it difficult to reach the nectar in those with big blossoms. Compact varieties with small, simple flowers will bring hummingbirds from far and wide.

Though they must be lifted each fall where the ground freezes, in southern zones cannas form deep, long-lasting roots. It isn’t unusual to find ancient patches of them around abandoned homes and where most other traces of human habitation have disappeared.

Bee Balm
Monarda didyma draws rubythroats from far and wide when its vibrant flowers light up eastern forests in midsummer. Whorls of raspberry-colored blossoms begin opening in midsummer and continue for weeks. Horticulturalists have also perfected varieties with white, red, and violet flowers.

Bee balm is a popular “old garden” perennial in much of the continent, but it doesn’t flower consistently in the hot, humid South, so there lavender (M. citriodora) and red (M. pringlei) are better choices. In the arid Southwest, light purple heads of horsemint (M. fistulosa) blossoms summon black-chinned hummingbirds to dinner.

Honeysuckles are vines or shrubs that grow over vast regions of the United States and Canada. Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) can be grown over much of North America. The soft red blossoms are typical hummingbird attractants—tubular and nonfragrant.

The first spring flowering is a show-stopper. In the South, where it is native, flowers unfurl just about the time the first contingent of ruby-throated hummingbirds reach their nesting grounds. Sporadic blossoms appear throughout the year, hence the name sempervirens—evergreen. The fleshy red seeds are a favorite of mockingbirds as well.

Other native honeysuckles are more regional in their distribution, but are very useful where they are found. Twinberry honeysuckle (L. involucrata); tatarian honeysuckle (L. tatarica); Arizona honeysuckle (L. arizonica); orange honeysuckle (L. ciliosa); and chaparral honeysuckle (L. interrupta) all put forth nectar-filled flowers to tempt whichever hummingbird species might be in the area.

Members of the hibiscus (Rosa sinensis) tribe are favored for its lush tropical appearance, but cold-hardy varieties are being developed so that they can be enjoyed during the warm days of summer in the North. Small-flowered varieties in bright colors will prove much more useful than frilly ones the size of a dinner plate and those of pastel hues.

Althaea, or rose of Sharon (H. syriacus), is another widely grown member of the clan that is a magnet for hummingbirds. Pink, purple, or white flowers blanket this tall shrub most of the summer and into the fall. Hummingbirds are better able to reach the nectar of varieties with “single” flowers rather than those with “doubles.”

Sultan’s turban (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) is used extensively in the Southeast and on the West Coast. The first clear red blossoms appear in midspring and continue month after month. Visitors to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in south Texas often find buff-bellied hummingbirds feeding on this plant around the refuge’s parking lot. Giant turk’s cap (M. arboreus var. mexicanus) flowers in the winter. These massive shrubs are useful in regions with frost-free winters.

Butterfly Bush
Buddleia davidii and B. alternifolia aren’t just for butterflies! Called “summer lilac” in the South, the tiny purple, pink, or white flowers are borne on gracefully arching branches that dance about in the slightest breeze. Butterfly bush makes a medium-sized or large shrub that gives the birds a fine lookout perch.

Rufous hummingbirds in Oregon enjoy buddleias as much as rubythroats do in Georgia. The fragrant flowers also attract bees and moths. THIS CAN BE INVASIVE IN SOME REGIONS.

Flowering Quince
Chaenomeles speciosa and C. japonica bloom in early spring when most hummingbirds are just beginning to arrive at their nesting destinations. But in the deserts of southern California, the small pink flowers exude abundant nectar while young Costa’s hummingbirds, still in the nest, require an ever-increasing quantity of food.

Quince has a fairly short flowering period, timed perfectly to bring in hummingbirds at a time when few other nectar sources are available. The attractive shape and colorful fall foliage make quince an overall good garden choice.

Aquilegia formosa, A. canadensis, A. elegantula, A. caerulea, and A. chrysantha are all indigenous to mountainous regions, though they can grow comfortably in most sections of the United States. In the wild, columbines are often found growing amid streamside rocks, so thorough watering will benefit them in areas of little rainfall.

The columbine’s unusual spurred petals and the airy, fernlike foliage belie the toughness necessary for high-country plants to survive. Some columbines are red or red and yellow, whereas others come in shades of yellow, blue, or purple. Many birders have added white-eared hummingbird to their life lists at a marvelous stand of butter-yellow columbine near Comfort Spring in southeastern Arizona.

Lantana horrida, L. camara, and L. montevidensis are hardy plants that offer clusters of florets to every passing bird. Flowers of the most common lantana variety are red and yellow. Clever nurseryfolk have created carmine red, butter yellow, and some lantanas that glow pure orange. Trailing types in purple or yellow are sometimes used as groundcovers.

The tenacious roots of lantana give it a plus in public areas where horticultural care may be haphazard. My first trip to California was made complete when I found a female Anna’s hummingbird defending a large patch of bright red lantana at an apartment complex I was visiting.

Hemerocallis are ubiquitous in tidy suburbs and rural landscapes across the continent. Hybridizers have gone hog-wild developing new daylily colors and interesting shapes, and ease of care only adds to their appeal for those wanting to create a hummingbird-friendly landscape. These plants withstand deluge and drought with equal aplomb.

Daylilies with single yellow flowers perched atop tall stalks seem to be the type hummingbirds prefer. Because they like to grow in full sun, daylilies can be like beacons to all hummingbirds passing by.

Cardinal Flower
Lobelia cardinalis is native to the Southeast and a few parts of the West, yet its glowing scarlet flowers illuminate dark, damp corners of gardens almost everywhere. But these erect perennials aren’t afraid of the sun, so put them in sunny spots as well. The three- to four-foot-tall plants are a natural near fountains and around ponds. Late-summer flowering is an asset to migrating hummingbirds.

If the proper conditions are created, cardinal flower is self-seeding, so garden chores are simplified. Just wait for new seedlings to increase the size of the bed.

Trumpet Creeper
Campsis radicans grows as an aggressive vine in many parts of the United States, but in colder regions it is a large shrub. The large, waxy, trumpet-shaped blossoms are usually bright orange, though some individual plants produce red or yellow blossoms. Hummingbirds aren’t choosy about the colors. I remember finding one scrambling over a stone wall in the west Texas town of Fort Stockton. Black-chinned, broad-tailed, and rufous hummingbirds swarmed all over the vibrant red flowers one fall morning.

The popular hybrid ‘Madame Galen’ must not produce any nectar, because the birds seldom visit its luscious-looking peach-colored blossoms. Trumpet creeper forms a deep root system and it reaches ever skyward, grasping on to everything in its way, so don’t put this giant too close to the house.

Zinnias don’t have the look of hummingbird flowers, but they are cultivated all over North America for their bright, sunny appearance. People speculate that hummingbirds primarily seek tiny insects in the center of the bloom. Nevertheless, the zinnia’s attractiveness to the birds is unchallenged. Watch carefully to see how your hummingbirds extract the nectar and insects.

Every hummingbird gardener dreams of finding the perfect plant. This mythical bit of botany would be easy to grow and drought-resistant, yet tolerant of “wet feet.” It would produce colorful, attractive flowers nonstop all year. And this imaginary all-American hummingbird plant would flourish as easily in Limestone, Maine, as it would in Bisbee, Arizona. Such a plant does not exist, but several of this baker’s dozen come very, very close. Happy hummingbird gardening!

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Nancy L. Newfield, co-author of Hummingbird Gardens, originated the study of hummingbirds wintering in southern Louisiana.