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How to Attract Hordes of Hummingbirds

Q. I would like to know what plants or trees can be used to attract Hummingbirds. I have planted Butterfly Bush in the past and it has done very well, but I've read that bright colors are a better attraction. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!!!
    ---Wayne in Eastern North Carolina
Our back yard now gets sun in Spring and Summer from about 11 a.m. until late afternoon (a neighbor's tree fell down last year), and I know there are hummingbirds in the area; I saw one pass through our yard. When we were shadier, I planted a lot of red impatiens and begonias near a hummingbird feeder in an attempt to attract them. But now that we have more light, I'm wondering what I should plant to better lure the little birds to our yard.
    ---Mary in Burlington, NJ
A. These amazing little birds are more than just a summertime delight to see; the highly beneficial adults are excellent plant pollinators, and they eat lots of aphids, thrips and gnats in addition to plant pollen and nectar. (Baby birds are fed insects exclusively.)

And you're both right; the color red (and the brighter red the better) is the key to bringing more of them into your landscape. But flower SHAPE is also very important. I had a hummer come into our front flower garden last year while I was out working and the poor bird raced from red begonias to red impatiens to red petunias and then—I'm not making this up—flew right up in front of my face and appeared to yell at me before flying off.

I yelled "I'm sorry—I'll plant Scarlet Runner Beans next year; I promise!"

That's my favorite hummingbird attracting plant—it has the tubular red flowers that the birds have evolved to work in syncopation with, it's an annual that you don't have to worry about getting out of control, and it's a fabulous, multi-use edible. The 'beans' make great tasting string beans when picked young, can be used like lima beans when they get bigger, and then make great dried beans if left on the plant all season—although you'll get lots more of the hummingbird-attracting flowers if you pick the beans when they're young and small (which is also when they taste the best). As with any such plant, prompt picking produces prodigious pluralities of posies, while letting the 'fruits' (beans) remain on the plant cuts flower production dramatically.

Scarlet runners are 'pole beans' that must be supported with a sturdy trellis—but there's also a big advantage there; making the trellis nice and high will give you a great view of the birds (who are the main pollinators of this fabulous summer plant).

Also great hummer magnets are any of the red flowering sages, aka salvia. (The herb sage is the same plant as the ornamental salvia; the common names really just correspond to different uses, and the plant's official genus is Salvia.) The book says they need lots of sun, but luckily my plants must be illiterate, because I get nice flowering with a half days sun.

The plant that'll probably work best in a really shady garden is red columbine. Although this native flower doesn't have the classic tubular shape, it's a well-established hummer attractor--and it blooms early in the season, which can be a real plus. Having hummingbird-attracting flowers in bloom at different times of the year greatly increases your chance of attracting large numbers—and maybe even coaxing a few to nest on your property.

Now we move on to the perennial plants noted for bringing in the buzzing little birds, many of which must be accompanied by warnings of potential invasiveness, so read carefully.

One of the safest and best-behaved of the bunch is the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). It does bloom very late in the season, but that can be a real plus for the birds, as it blooms just when the hummers who are visiting cooler climes in the summer need a lot of high-energy pollen and nectar to fuel their migration back to warm places for the winter.

Fairly well-behaved is the native honeysuckle vine (Lonicera sempervirens) which is also known as 'trumpet honeysuckle', but should NOT be confused with Trumpet Vine, a different species with a highly invasive habit. Native honeysuckle are vigorous growers and need a sturdy fence or trellis for support—but they pay you back for that construction with the longest bloom season of any of the plants under discussion here.

The notorious trumpet vine (Campsis radicans)—also known as 'trumpet creeper'—is a native North American plant and a legendary attractor of hummingbirds. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most invasive fast-growing vines on the planet. You should only grow it if you have a lot of gardening experience, have the physical ability to keep it under control, and intend to whack it back pretty much to the ground every Spring. And even then, don't stand still too long right next to it. Same goes for bee balm (Monarda) aka bergamot); although not a vine, it is a member of the mint family—every one of which can quickly get pesky.

Now, in addition to the right kind of flowers, hummingbirds also need birdbaths. Not to get a drink; they do that when they feed on nectar-producing flowers, but to get clean. And it's also nice to have pussywillows blooming on your property; hummingbirds use the fuzz from the Q-Tip like flower heads to build their nests. And what could possibly be cooler than to find a hummingbird nest near your home?

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