For those who enjoy both gardening and bird watching, it's fortunate that there are so many great plants for attracting hummingbirds from which to choose. Bird watchers desirous of drawing these beauties with nectar-filled flowers needn't sacrifice landscaping impact at all. It's one of those happy coincidences in life: Many of the plants that attract our attention are also considered among the best flowers to draw hummingbirds, hungry for the food that they bear.
The variety of plants for attracting hummingbirds is so great that, in the process of building hummingbird gardens, you could also be building a landscape that will be the talk of the neighborhood. In selecting flowers for such gardens, you're not limited to using red flowers, although red is famous for catching the attention of these winged wonders. In the following list of flowers commonly used for attracting hummingbirds, you'll see lots of red flowers, but also flowers in purple, white, orange, pink, and blue. They're all rich in nectar, the food hummingbirds crave.
Nor should the selection of plants suitable for your hummer garden be based solely on flower color. Plants have many other qualities that make them more or less compatible with your particular needs and wants. Take advantage of the diversity of plant types available at your local garden center, so that you can achieve a well-rounded landscape. You can choose from annuals, perennials, vines, shrubs, trees, bedding plants, and hanging plants. The following are some criteria to consider when selecting plants (in addition to the obvious: their ability to bring hummers to your yard):
Flowers Commonly Used for Attracting Hummingbirds:
- Bee balm
- Delphinium and hollyhock
- Butterfly bush (invasive in some cases)
- Catawba rhododendron
- Garden phlox
- Morning glory
- Rose of Sharon
- Trumpet vine, trumpet honeysuckle, and Japanese honeysuckle (all, unfortunately, aggressive and/or invasive)
- Cardinal vine
- Lantana and fuchsia
- Silk tree (unfortunately, invasive)
Best Choices Among Herbaceous Perennial Flowers
Let's rank these choices not in a competitive order, but rather according to how they're used in landscaping. We begin with three herbaceous plants appropriate for perennial flower beds. Later, we'll take a closer look at the bushes and vines best for attracting hummingbirds, before concluding with observations on two hanging plants and a tree appropriate for a hummingbird garden.
Long-blooming perennial, bee balm (Monarda didyma) is a fine choice for USDA plant hardiness zones 4 to 9. This member of the mint family blooms in red or light purple, likes soil that is slightly acidic, and reaches a maximum 3 feet tall x 2 feet wide (many cultivars are smaller).
Red columbine (Aquilegia canadense) is a 2-foot-tall perennial (width slightly less) for zones 2 to 8 and an early bloomer, perfect for attracting hummingbirds just beginning to return north from their winter homes.
Seek the Lucifer cultivar of Crocosmia (30 to 36 inches tall x 12 to 24 inches wide) for flowers in the orange-to-red color range. Happily, this South-African native is "for the birds," while rabbit pests avoid it. Crocosmia plants spring out of corms and can be grown in zones 5 to 9.
Delphinium and hollyhock are two traditional favorites that supply hummingbirds with food. Their value also comes from the heights they reach. Some delphiniums can be grown in zones 2 to 9, and they often grow to be 5 feet tall.
Hollyhocks (Alcea) often outgrow even the delphiniums and are hardy to zone 3. Technically biennials, hollyhocks self-seed so well that they're usually treated as if they were perennials. Both delphiniums and hollyhocks come in a variety of colors and, due to their stately stature, are an excellent choice to form a back row in a tiered perennial bed.
Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) bears fragrant flowers that draw hummers to yards in zones 3 to 8. These perennials can give you a number of different looks, including the variegated leaves of Nora Leigh (24 to 36 inches tall, with a width about half that) and the white flowers of the mildew-resistant David cultivar (3 to 4 feet tall, spreading about 2 to 3 feet) that make it a good moon-garden plant.
Best Choices Among Shrubs, Vines, and Trees
A shrub that has a prime place in hummingbird gardens is Buddleia davidii. Butterfly bush can get 6 to 12 feet tall, with a spread of 4 to 15 feet, in warm climates. That's too big for some growers (especially those with small yards), so consider pruning it back to the ground in late winter or early spring. It will re-emerge from its root system.
If you need further incentive for pruning butterfly bush, take into account that you get more and bigger blooms on butterfly bush's new growth. Treat butterfly bush as if it were an herbaceous perennial rather than a shrub. Blooms on butterfly bushes can be purple, pink, white, or red, and they usually have an orange throat in the center. Grow these shrubs in zones 5 to 10. Unhappily, the species plant is invasive in some areas, including the Pacific Northwest. A new cultivar, Blue Chip, is touted as a non-invasive alternative.
Catawba rhododendrons (Rhododendron catawbiense) are broadleaf evergreen bushes that have dark-green, leathery foliage, and spectacular flowers in the spring that are effective for attracting hummingbirds. This rhododendron shrub is easy to transplant, but it does require an acidic soil. Blooms can be white, lavender, rose, or the red that hummingbirds so love. Catawba can reach a height of 6 to 8 feet, with a spread of 4 to 6 feet. A rhododendron display is most effective when bushes are massed together. This shrub is toxic: Don't allow children to ingest any of its plant parts. It grows best in zones 4 to 8.
Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) is a late-blooming shrub with an upright growing habit that can reach a height of 8 to 10 feet with a spread of 4 to 6 feet. These bushes profit from pruning. Blooms can be red, pink, blue, or white. They work well in shrub borders in zones 5 to 9.
Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) produces orange or reddish-orange to salmon flowers throughout most of the summer months in zones 4 to 9. Provide this 40-foot-tall vine with an arbor, trellis, or fence and let it climb! This vigorous vine needs to be pruned back to keep it "within bounds." Indeed, even in the southeastern U.S. (to which it's native), this vine is sometimes considered a weed. It may be too aggressive for many gardeners, so don't grow it if you don't want it popping up all over your yard.
Meanwhile, Magnifica honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens Magnifica), with its large, scarlet flowers that attract hummingbirds, can be grown in zones 3 to 9. Unlike trumpet vine, this 10-to-20 foot plant is a true creeper, meaning a bit more maintenance is required to get it to climb a trellis, thereby achieving best display effect. Lonicera sempervirens is sometimes called "trumpet honeysuckle," so don't confuse it with trumpet vine. Both may have "trumpet" in their common names, but, as you can see from their scientific names, they're two totally distinct plants. Hall's Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica Halliana) is a 15-foot-tall vine hardy to zone 5 valued for its tricolored floral show.
As its name suggests, cardinal vine (Ipomoea x multifida), has a striking red bloom. This 10-to-15 foot vine must be treated as an annual north of zone 6. A more commonly grown plant in the same genus that attracts hummingbirds is Ipomoea tricolor Heavenly Blue. The latter is the annual vine that's famous for bearing those wonderfully sky-blue flowers on vines 10 feet tall.
Don't confuse cardinal vine with "cardinal flower" (Lobelia cardinalis), a perennial (zones 2 to 7) that also attracts hummingbirds. Because it likes moist soil, Lobelia cardinalis is an excellent choice for the rim of a water garden. It reaches 2 to 4 feet tall, with a spread half of that.
These vines and bushes are important for those who want to combine effective landscape design with the hobby of watching hummingbirds or butterflies. Bushes can be used as structural elements to form a border to separate two properties. They can be similarly employed within your own property bounds to define distinct outdoor spaces. Even a driveway can be transformed from a humdrum component of a landscape to an aesthetic achievement if bordered by attractive bushes. A vine-covered arbor can likewise be an important structural element of a landscape, furnishing it with a focal point.
Lantana plants (Lantana camara) are perennials in zones 8 to 10, where they become 6 feet tall, with a spread of 8 feet. But, in colder climates, lantana plants are more often used as annuals for hanging baskets and stay much smaller. The Spreading Sunset cultivar has a flower head with gold centers surrounded by an orange that later fades to pink. Like most of the entries listed so far, lantana plants are sun-lovers. For landscapers who are looking for shade-loving substitutes, fuchsia hangers are the answer.
A tree that attracts hummingbirds is silk tree, or "mimosa" (Albizia julibrissin). It's a member of the pea family. At the southern end of its range, this vigorous Chinese exotic quickly naturalizes in areas disturbed by humans. It's thus often viewed as an invasive pest in the southeastern U.S., for example; exercise caution. But its puffy, pink flowers are aromatic, and its nectar attracts hummingbirds in zones 6 to 9. It stands 20 to 40 feet, with a canopy that can be as wide as 50 feet.
How to Create a Butterfly Garden
When drawing a landscape plan to determine what goes where in a new landscape layout, landscape designers divide the property into "activity zones." In this case, the activity zones will focus on viewing hummingbirds as they feed on nectar. A diverse group of plant types serves different functions:
- The vine plants selected should be allowed to grow on arbors for best impact. Position the arbor so that you'll be able to watch the hummingbirds from a window inside your home.
- Mass the shrub plants in a border or on a landscaping berm to form sheltered areas. Breaking up a large flat expanse is important, not only for visual effect but particularly when trying to attract secretive wildlife.
- Sketch a patio into your plan to house the hanging plants selected. If your patio will be shaded, use fuchsia hangers, not lantana. It's often convenient to combine patios with pergolas or arbors since the latter will give you a place from which to hang your patio's hanging plants.
- Perennial flower beds are the finishing touch, to be implemented at the very end. You would want to work on hardscape elements first, such as arbors and patios. Next would come the planting of the larger plants, such as the silk tree and the shrubs. It's only after all this heavy work is done that you would want to plant your perennials in beds, or hang up your lantana plants. Otherwise, you unnecessarily expose fragile plants to the risk of damage.