Everyone knows hummingbirds sip nectar from red flowers. Planting red-flowered native plants like Cardinal Flower and Wild Columbine is a great way to attract them and provide nutritious natural food. Native plants also avoid the upkeep and disease transmission risks of red colored hummingbird feeders. But did you know that more than red flowers are needed to create rich hummingbird habiat? Let's take a closer look at our only native hummingbird, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris, to find out why.
Hummingbirds are Predators
Hummingbirds drink nectar to get quick sugars to fuel their energetic flight. These peanut-sized birds overwinter in the tropics and migrate all the way to the U.P. to breed and raise their young. What is less widely know is that they exercise those flying skills for more than migration; hummingbirds are voracious predators of insects. As for any creature, sugar water is not a balanced diet; hummingbirds need the protein provided by the trace pollen they ingest and from the insects they hunt. Like many birds, hummingbirds feed insects to their young as a protein-rich food source that is abundant during nesting season. The first item on their menu is...
Perhaps it is abundant riches of the U.P. that keep hummingbirds coming back year after year. <wink>
Mosquitos are not the only insects to fall to these fierce little sky dragons. Their speed and maneuverability allow them to snatch gnats and fruit flies on the wing. They commonly steal spiders' lunches right from the web, and pluck unwary spiders as well. The ability to hover means hummingbirds are able to pick small caterpillars and aphids off of leaves and stems.
So what does this mean for those of us trying to provide rich hummingbird habitat?
Hummingbirds need insects. In order to provide hummingbird habitat, we have to tolerate, even encourage, insects. Yes, even those blood-sucking mosquitos. Spraying for mosquitos or using chemicals to kill aphids or other bugs is going to have a negative impact on the ability of hummingbirds to survive and raise their young. Planting the native plants that can tolerate grazing by native bugs helps keep the protein department open in the hummingbird-supermarket of your yard. Plant tough native plants and consider leaving that next batch of aphids for a bit and observing what stops by for lunch. It just might be your favorite hummingbird.
Hummingbirds Build Unique Nests
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds need insects and native plants for more than just food. A hummingbird nest is a walnut-sized cup bound to the top of a branch with spiderweb and sheer determination (and sometimes a bit of pine resin). Constructed with the downy fluff of thistle, dandelion, and other spring-seeding flowers, the whole thing is held together with spider web and camoflaged on the outside with bits of lichen and moss.
To create these tiny flexible cups, hummingbirds need fluffy-seeded early plants. Dandelions fit the bill, so add this to your list of excuses to leave them in your lawn and not spray them dead. However, dandelions aren't native, and most people are not enthused about growing thistle, even native ones, so here is our first non-red native plant for hummingbirds:
1. Pale Agoseris - Agoseris glauca
Pale Agoseris has low-growing foliage with flower stalks a bit taller than a European dandelion. Also known as False Dandelion, it is a durable, drought-resistant plant that favors jack pine forests and dry soils. This plant blooms early and long. Whether or not hummingbirds choose to nectar on it, it will attract early-season insects as hummingbird fodder, and will provide a native source of early nest-building fluff.
2. Giant Sunflower - Helianthus giganteus
The other essential component to a hummingbird nest is spider silk. As much as it pains some people to hear it, hummingbirds need spiders. Spiders will occupy most undisturbed areas, but if you would like to encourage them to make their delicate constructions of hummingbird nest material someplace other than your porch, consider a large native plant. A tall plant with lots of flowers will attract insects to be eaten by both hummingbirds and spiders and provide expansive vertical real estate for spiders to build those essential webs. Giant Sunflower is a perfect plant to round out your hummingbird habitat, providing nectar and edible insects, and providing seeds for other birds as well. If you already have native sunflowers, we have an entire collection of Plants of Significant Size, any of which would compliment your hummingbird habitat.
3. Foxglove and Hairy Beardtongue - Penstemon digitalis and hirsutus
I don't want to totally exclude nectar plants from the list, so let's look at some that are not your standard red flower. One of the interesting things about hummingbirds is that they can see markings and colors on flowers that show up on the ultraviolet end of the visible light spectrum. These marking are invisible or faint to you and I, but to a hummingbird, a white flower can be a kaleidoscope of markings promising rich rewards. Foxglove and Hairy Beardtongue both have the tube-shaped flowers favored by hummingbirds and are visited for nectar. Foxglove Beardtongue prefers medium rich soils while Hairy is more versatile and takes dry soils in stride. Both will tolerate shade, but again Hairy Beardtongue is more versatile and will grow in full shade. Hairy Beardtongue is also an early bloomer, providing nectar before many other plants are flowering.
4. White Turtlehead - Chelone glabra
White Turtlehead is an unusual flower. Its blooms are shaped like a snapdragon but appear closed up tight. It takes a sturdy pollinator to breach them. Perhaps that is why they are favored by hummingbirds - the nectar can't be accessed by lesser pollinators so is always on reserve for agile, long-tongued hummingbirds and burly bees. These interesting flowers like moist soil and sun or dappled shade, and enjoy rain gardens and the edges of rivers or lakes.
5. Fireweed - Chamerion angustifolium
Fireweed is useful to hummingbirds for several reasons. The flower shape lends itself to the long-tongued birds. It blooms mid-summer to fall, offering a welcome power-up for the migration south. Finally, Fireweed seeds are the ultimate in fluff. Fireweed fluff used to be collected by indigenous peoples and commercially as insulation. While the fluff is mostly dispersed by winter, nest-building hummingbirds may be able to find a few partially opened seed pods to help line the all-important nest in spring.
Fireweed rounds out our list of five lesser-known hummingbird plants as we welcome our feathered friends back to the Upper Peninsula after a very long flight. If you would like to support these jewels, consider planting native plants that provide natural nectar, offer spring seed fluff for nest building, and host the insects hummingbirds feed their young. And don't forget to be tolerant of spiders - those hummingbird nest are not going to stay stuck to the branches without spider silk!
As always, thank you for planting native. Free plant ($5) with purchase from our Hummingbird Collection for the rest of May with code Hummer at checkout!