Q: I started feeding hummingbirds with feeders but want to offer them a better diet so which plants could I grow to give them a variety? I’ve also noticed that the birds aren’t visiting my feeders as often as they did in the beginning when I first put them up. Any suggestions? – N.F., Albuquerque
A: Let’s start with the slowed activity at the feeders. I’m going to be very blunt here as my first question to you is “are you keeping the feeders cleaned and fresh?” Because if you aren’t being faithful about cleaning and keeping the nectar fresh, you can bet the hummers will find another diner! It’s amazing how quickly the nectar can turn “sour” (for lack of a different term) leaving a bad taste in the hummingbird’s mouth.
With the hot weather, scum, mold and mildew grow very quickly in the feeders. So, for the health of the birds I’m suggesting that you wash the feeders with soapy water and be sure to rinse thoroughly every time you refill with fresh nectar. At stores that specialize in bird feeding you can find tiny bottle brushes to get the feeding ports really clean, too.
I’m changing my nectar every third day, especially in the heat, and haven’t noticed a slowing of visitors to them. So perhaps you need to be a bit more vigilant with the care of the feeders.
Then, too, maybe neighbors have hung feeders also so the competition for food isn’t at the level it was earlier in the season at your feeder.
One more thing, if your feeder is hung so it sits in full sun all day that’s not good at all. The nectar turns quicker and it might get too hot for the birds to want to drink. Filtered or a dappled shade spot is best for feeder hanging.
Now, on to plants for the hummers. In the tree world, if you have space consider either a mimosa (Albizia) or a desert willow (Chilopsis). Both of these trees have blooms that are sure to be visited by hummers. Another shrubby tree would be the Mexican bird of paradise (Caesalpinia) sporting those feathery yellow blooms and the spiky red anthers.
For perennial and annual plants, be sure to find ones that have elongated tubular shaped blooms and aim to find the plants that have red and orange colored flowers. Since the hummingbird is such a specialized feeder it prefers long, trumpet-shaped flowers from which to feed.
Most any of the plants in the penstemon family that you’ll find available at our nurseries in these parts are useful. A lot of salvias have the bloom the hummers want, too. I’ve planted a large pot of pineapple sage and when it throws up a new bloom spike series those flowers are visited regularly.
Autumn sage (Salvia greggii) sports the lovely red/magenta blooms the birds want, too. Several plants in the “sage” family work well. Lantana in the orange/red/amber color schemes work. Zauschneira, commonly called “Hummingbird Plant,” will certainly attract the birds while it’s in bloom.
A couple of vines to consider would be the trumpet vine (Campsis) with its big orange blooms or a coral honeysuckle (Lonicera). Both plants will require that you monitor where and how they grow so as to not interfere with the house walls or roofs. I have had hummers visit scarlet runner bean vines, too. You get the added benefit of an edible bean.
I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to finding plants that will offer blooms to change up your hummers’ diet, but as you can see, there are lots of plants to fit that bill and all of these plants grow pretty darn well here. Happy Diggin’ In!
Tracey Fitzgibbon is a certified nurseryman. Send garden-related questions to Digging In, Albuquerque Journal, P.O. Drawer J, Albuquerque, NM 87103, or to firstname.lastname@example.org.