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  • Michelle

Five Unexpected Plants For Hummingbirds

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 flowe