For those who enjoy both gardening and bird watching, it is fortunate that there is such a plenitude of plants for attracting hummingbirds from which to choose. Bird watchers desirous of drawing these beauties with nectar-filled flowers need not sacrifice landscaping beauty at all. It is one of those happy coincidences in life: many of the plants adept at attracting 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 are not limited to using red flowers, although the color, red is famous for catching the attention of these winged wonders. In the following list of flowers commonly used for attracting hummingbirds, you will see lots of red flowers, but also flowers in purple, white, orange, pink, and blue. They're all rich in nectar, the hummingbird food par excellence.
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.
Annuals and perennials, vines, shrubs, trees, bedding plants and hanging plants: you can choose from all of these categories in selecting flowers for attracting hummingbirds. The following are some criteria to consider when selecting plants (in addition to the obvious -- adeptness at bringing hummers to your yard):
- Diversity: to increase landscape design options, I have intentionally selected a variety of sizes, forms, etc.
- Showiness of bloom.
- Ease of maintenance and planting.
- Color choices within the species.
- Attractiveness of foliage.
- Early blooming or long blooming period.
10 Flowers Commonly Used for Attracting Hummingbirds:
- Bee Balm
- Red Columbine
- Delphinium and hollyhock
- Butterfly Bush (invasive in some cases)
- Catawba rhododendron
- 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
These 10 plants are not ranked in a competitive order, but rather are arranged in landscaping groups: i.e., according to how they are used in the landscape. We begin with three herbaceous plants appropriate for perennial flower beds. Later, we will take a closer look at the bushes and vines best for attracting hummingbirds, before I conclude 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 4-9. This member of the mint family blooms in red or light purple and likes soil that is slightly acidic.
Red columbine (Aquilegia canadense) is a perennial flower for zones 2-8 and an early bloomer, adept at attracting hummingbirds that are just beginning to return north from their winter homes.
Delphinium and hollyhock are two traditional favorites in perennial beds, both of which furnish hummingbirds with food. The value of these two plants in landscape design certainly derives in part from the heights that they reach. Some delphiniums can be grown in zones 2-9, and they often grow to be 5 feet tall or more. Hollyhocks (Alcea) often outgrow even the delphiniums and are hardy to zone 3. Technically biennials, hollyhocks self-seed so readily that they are 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.
Best Choices Among Shrubs, Vines, and Trees
A shrub that has had a prime place in hummingbird gardens is butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii). Butterfly bush can get 6-12 feet tall and have a spread of 4-15 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 blooms tend to be larger and more prolific on butterfly bush's new growth. You essentially want to treat butterfly bush as if it were a 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 5-10. Unhappily, butterfly bush is now considered to be an invasive plant in some areas, including the Pacific Northwest. A new cultivar named 'Blue Chip' has been 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 to find in the garden. Catawba rhododendron bushes can reach a height of 6-8 feet with a spread of 4-6 feet. A rhododendron display is most effective when rhododendron bushes are massed together. Warning: this shrub is toxic -- do not allow children to ingest any of its plant parts. Zones 4-8.
Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) is a late-blooming shrub with an upright growing habit that can reach a height of 8-10 feet with a spread of 4-6 feet. These bushes profit from pruning. Blooms can be red, pink, blue, or white. They work well in shrub borders. Zones 5-9.
Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) produces orange or reddish-orange to salmon flowers throughout most of the summer months.
Zones 4-9. Provide it with an arbor, trellis or fence and let it climb! This vigorous vine plant needs to be pruned back in order to keep it "within bounds." Indeed, even in the southeastern U.S. (to which it is native), this vine is sometimes considered a weed. This vine may be too aggressive for many gardeners, so do not grow it if you do not 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 3-9. Unlike trumpet vine, this plant is a true creeper, meaning a bit more maintenance is required to get it to climb a trellis, thereby achieving maximum display effect. Lonicera sempervirens is sometimes called "trumpet honeysuckle," so do not confuse it with trumpet vine. Both may have "trumpet" in their common names, but, as you can see from their scientific names, they are two totally distinct plants. Japanese honeysuckle (or "Hall's honeysuckle) is valued for its tricolored floral show.
As its name suggests, cardinal vine (Ipomoea x multifida), has a striking red bloom. Cardinal vine must be treated as an annual north of zone 6. Do not confuse this plant with "cardinal flower" (Lobelia cardinalis), a perennial (zones 2-7) that also attracts hummingbirds. Because it likes moist soil, Lobelia cardinalis is an excellent choice for the rim of a water garden.
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), sometimes confusingly called "verbena bushes", are perennials in zones 8-10. But in colder climates, lantana plants are more often used as annuals for hanging baskets. 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. The latter attract hummingbirds, whereas lantana plants are especially loved by butterflies.
I'll also mention a tree that attracts hummingbirds. Silk tree, or "mimosa" (Albizia julibrissin), is a member of the pea family. At the southern end of its range, this vigorous exotic plant (from China) quickly naturalizes in areas disturbed by humans. It is thus often viewed as an invasive pest in the southeastern U.S., for example; exercise caution. But its puffy pink blooms are aromatic, and its nectar attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. Zones 6-9.
Landscape Plan for a Butterfly and Hummingbird Landscape
When drawing a landscape plan to determine what goes where in a new landscape layout, landscape designers divide the property into "activity zones." For hummingbird and butterfly watchers, these activity zones need to be focused on viewing hummingbirds and butterflies as they feed on your plants' nectar. It is with this consideration in mind that I have injected so much diversity into this Top 10 list. Different plant types will serve different functions on our butterfly and hummingbird landscape:
- The vine plants selected should be allowed to grow on arbors for maximum impact. Position the arbor in your landscape plan so that you'll be able to watch the hummingbirds and butterflies from a window inside your home.
- The shrub plants selected can be massed in a border to form sheltered areas for your winged creatures. Breaking up a large flat expanse is an important consideration -- not only for landscape design in general but particularly when trying to attract wildlife.
- Sketch a patio into your plan to house the hanging plants selected. Imagine sipping a coffee out on the patio and having a beautiful butterfly or hummingbird alight on the hanging plant right across from you or above you! If your patio will be shaded, use fuchsia hangers, not lantana. It is often convenient to combine patios and arbors since an arbor will give you a place from which to hang your patio's hanging plants.
- The plants referred to at the beginning of the article are intended for perennial flower beds. This would be the finishing touch on your landscape, to be implemented at the very end. You would want to work on hardscape elements first, such as the arbor and patio mentioned above. Next would come the planting of the larger plants, such as the silk tree and the shrubs. It is 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.