Who is not amazed by the incredible speed and agility of our tiny ruby throated hummingbird? They dart and dive bomb with blazing speed and seem to hover effortlessly while taking a drink from bright red summer flowers. And in an instant, they are gone. Sometimes you will not see them but can hear their unmistakable hum as their gossamer-thin wings beat over 50 times per second.
Hummingbirds are the smallest of birds. Their very high metabolism requires lots of calories conveniently provided by the nectar of certain flowers containing 26% sugar or about twice what a soft drink contains! These little birds consume and use more than twice their own weight in nectar per day so they must drink constantly. While nectar provides fuel for flying and hovering, insects and spiders provide the nutrition and protein needed for a balanced diet. It is not easy being a hummingbird. 10-15% of their time is spent flying, and 77-80% of their time is spent resting or in a state of torpor, a very deep, sleep-like state when metabolic functions slow and body temperatures fall.
There are over 300 species of hummingbirds, and these occur only in the Americas. Most of them are tropical. Only one species, the ruby throated hummingbird, breeds in our area. They overwinter in Central America but every year they migrate north as far as Canada. This migration north follows the earliest blooming of their preferred plants. In our case, that would be dwarf red buckeye or Aesculus pavia, and columbine or Aquilegia canadensis. We can expect to see the first returning hummingbirds here anywhere from the last week of March through the first week or two of April. Interestingly, banding studies have shown that these birds tend to return every year to the same place where they hatched, and to the same gardens where they spent their first summer. During the southward migration in the fall, most of them will pass through here by the first of October, but it is important to provide nectar plants on up to the first frosts. If you don’t, they will remember the next year that restaurants were closed in your area!
So how do we get them to our gardens in the first place? Hummingbirds go where the food is. They have evolved to extract nectar from certain flowers while also pollinating them. Their preferred flowers are usually highly visible being red or orange, and are long and tubular facilitating proper beak insertion. These flowers often hang down which allows the birds to hover while drinking. They are usually not at all fragrant because hummingbirds have no sense of smell. They have long stamens that deposit pollen on the heads of busy birds, and they have lots of nectar. Butterflies also like some of these flowers. It makes sense, then, to plant these kinds of flowers in your garden to provide nectar for hummingbirds.
Young hummer Male on leather flower Enjoying salvia
Hummingbirds are not social birds. In fact, they are highly territorial and very aggressive. They will fight off others if food is scarce. Nectar production is hard on flowers. When all the nectar is removed from a plant, it takes time for the plant to replenish it. This is one of the times when hummers will fight. The other is for breeding rights. You will want the birds that were born in or near your garden to return, and you may want to entice those flying by to move in as well. So you will need to provide enough plants to supply lots of nectar. You also need plants that are in flower from late March through October. In east Tennessee, most of the best native plants for attracting hummingbirds prefer sunny sites, but not all. Of course, they need water so be sure it’s available also.
Following is a list of easy to grow plants that hummingbirds love and that thrive in the southeast. It is arranged from the earliest bloomers to the latest. All are perennial or woody and make beautiful additions to the garden. Click here to see our comprehensive list.
- Dwarf red buckeye – Aesculus pavia. Small tree, prefers part shade
- Columbine – Aquilegia canadensis. Bright red and yellow flowers, part shade
- Firepink – Silene virginica. Brilliant red flowers, part shade, good drainage
- Coral honeysuckle – Lonicera sempervirens. Dark salmon red flowers, blooms all summer, sun. Many great varieties in different colors.
- Carolina phlox – Phlox caroliniana. Brilliant pink flowers, part sun
- Smooth phlox – Phlox glaberrima. Brilliant pink flowers, part sun
- Vasevine - Clematis viorna. Delicate vine with pink, bell-shaped flowers, part sun
- Trumpet creeper - Campsis. Orange, pink, or yellow flowers on big robust vines
- Crossvine – Bignonia capreolata. Red/yellow flowering vine, sun
- Indian pink – Spigelia marilandica. Red, early summer, part shade
- Cumberland azalea – Rhododendron cumberlandense. Orange/red large shrub, part sun
- Flame azalea – Rhododendron calendulaceum. Orange flowering shrub, part sun
- Leather flower – Clematis glaucophylla. Vine, pink/yellow, flowers all summer, part sun
- Beardtongue – Penstemon. White or purple, sun/part sun
- Eastern bergamot – Mondarda bradburiana. Purple/violet, sun
- Trumpet creeper – Campsis radicans. Vine, red/yellow, sun
- Summer phlox – Phlox paniculata. Bright pink, sun
- Bee balm – Monarda didyma. Balls of red flowers, sun
- Anise sage – Salvia guaranitica. Deep sky blue. 3’x3’, sun
- Royal catchfly – Silene regia. Brilliant red, sun
- Plum leaf azalea – Rhododendron prunifolium. Shrub, red/orange, part sun
- Rose mallow – Hibiscus moscheutos. Large perennial, white/rose, sun, moist
- Cardinal flower – Lobelia cardinalis. Bright blood red spikes, sun, moist
- Autumn sage – Salvia microphylla. Bushy perennial, various bright colors, sun, blooms June until frost
Many people attract hummingbirds with sugar-water hummingbird feeders. This is an effective way to enjoy these birds. Our preference is to use the native plants that have evolved along with hummingbirds. Every time a hummingbird visits an artificial feeder, it is not potentially pollinating a native plant that depends on it for pollination. But in either case, enjoy these entertaining little birds and be grateful for your ability to do so.
For more interesting facts, go to hummingbirds.net.