Hummingbird Plants for Your Garden
Lynn Hassler, Garden Volunteer Captain; photos by Lynn Hassler
In general, hummingbirds prefer long, slender tubular flowers in the red-orange range. Thin tubular flowers generally have more nectar at the base, which is difficult for bees and other insects to reach. These types of flowers and the long bills and tongues of tiny hummingbirds have evolved together over time. And as hummingbirds flit from flower to flower, carrying pollen and nectar, they also play an important role as pollinators.
Hummingbirds will certainly visit flowers of other colors—purple is popular—and other shapes as well. Plants with staminate flowers turn out to be quite enticing.
Autumn Sage: An All-Star Hummingbird Plant
Scientific name: Salvia greggii
This small, sprawling, evergreen shrub grows 2-3 feet high and wide, and is well used in patios and around pools in southwestern landscapes. One-inch long, pinkish red flowers appear on 6–10 inch spikes on and off throughout the year but especially in spring and fall. There are other color forms—purple, white, orange, yellow—but the magenta are my favorite.
Autumn sage is a moderately fast grower and moderate water user (it looks better in summer with weekly supplemental water). Plant these hardy (to 5 degrees F) shrubs from one gallon containers in fall or spring. Morning sun or light shade is the best orientation in Tucson; full sun is appropriate at higher elevations. Good drainage is essential since plants have a tendency to rot out. Dismiss any pruning phobias because autumn sage invariably becomes woody over time and needs to be cut back hard in early spring in order to regenerate new growth. The nectar-filled tubular flowers are irresistible to hummingbirds and also attract sulphur butterflies. Gambel’s quail enjoy picking off the blooms and feasting on them, as do desert spiny lizards.
The genus is from the Latin salvus (“safe,” “unharmed”) referring to certain salvia species with medicinal virtues. The species name is after Josiah Gregg (1806–1850), plant collector who explored and wrote about the Southwest.
MORE GREAT HUMMINGBIRD PLANTS
Agastache rupestris, licorice mint hyssop
If you like fragrance in the garden, this perennial is for you. Brush or touch the foliage for a wonderful licorice and mint aroma. Smoky orange hummingbird-luring flowers bloom all summer long. Sphinx moths are also attracted to the blossoms. Does fine in large containers.
Anisacanthus thurberi, desert honeysuckle
You’ll see hummers at the rusty orange flowers, but this native is also the larval foodplant for the Elada Checkerspot butterfly. Slightly rangy looking, these medium-sized shrubs are deciduous in winter and/or during periods of drought . Reseeds readily.
Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii, flame acanthus
Bright red-orange tubular flowers appear in late summer and coincide with hummingbird migration. Grows 3-4 feet high and wide and is extremely drought tolerant. Plants are deciduous; cut to the ground every year in late winter. Does well on a north side.
Calliandra californica, Baja fairy duster
Scarlet tassel-like flowers are an orgy of pollination, attracting hummingbirds, Verdins, butterflies, and all manner of iridescent bees and flies. Ceraunus Blue and Marine Blue butterflies use this plant as a larval host. Plants are cold tender so place in full sun, against a south-facing wall, or in a protected patio.
Calliandra eriophylla, fairy duster
Beautiful flowers, with sprays of stamens resembling tiny dusters, are sweetly attractive to hummingbirds. And you just might get tickled by seeds that fling out from exploding seedpods following the blooms.
Chilopsis linearis, desert willow
This tough native tree produces light pink to deep purple (occasionally white) funnel-shaped flowers. Try one of the brightly colored cultivars and watch for hummers, Verdins and orioles to visit the blooms late spring-fall. Plant in full sun and give it room as trees may eventually reach 20-30 feet high and wide.
Epilobium canum (formerly Zauschneria californica), hummingbird trumpet
Spectacular red-orange flowers appear in the late summer and fall. This perennial spreads by underground rhizomes so give it a wide berth. Plants usually reach 2-3 feet tall. Cut to the ground following bloom.
Erythrina flabelliformis , coral bean
This mostly leafless shrub looks like a bunch of dead sticks for much of the year, but in spring stunning 6-inch-long red tubular flowers burst forth, attracting passing hummingbirds. Bright green leaves appear in late summer, but then turn yellow and drop as cooler weather sets in. Red seeds are poisonous.
Fouquieria splendens, ocotillo
With its distinctive shape, ocotillo makes a bold focal point in the landscape. Tall, arching branches reach high to the sky and provide ideal spots for perching birds. Flame-colored blooms in spring attract hummingbirds as well as Verdins and orioles.
Hesperaloe parviflora, red-flowered yucca/red hesperaloe
Bulletproof! Notice it growing on roadway median strips with excessive heat, exhaust fumes, and next-to-no water and you’ll realize how tough this plant really is. Stemless and clumping in nature, it sends up 3-7 foot tall flower spikes in summer with waxy red tubular blossoms.
Justicia californica, chuparosa
Chuparosa literally means “hummingbird” in Spanish. Plant this red-flowering shrub with its green photosynthesizing stems next to a south-facing wall for nearly continuous bloom. There is also a yellow-flowering form, but the hummers don’t seem to find that hue quite as attractive.
Justicia candicans, red justicia
Plant this upright growing perennial in full sun or partial shade. The bright green leaves are soft to the touch, and with its sprinkling of red tubular flowers makes a nice backdrop to a perennial flower garden. May bloom on and off for much of the year if not nipped by frost.
Justicia spicigera, Mexican honeysuckle
Plant this switch hitter in either sun or shade for nearly year-round bloom. Lush velvety green leaves lend a tropical feel to the landscape, and the bright orange tubular flowers are visited by hummingbirds and Verdins. It’s also a larval food plant for the Texan Crescent butterfly.
Lavandula pinnata, lace leaf/ fern leaf lavender
Hummingbirds love purple! Any species of lavender will do, but this one does particularly well in the Tucson area. Whorled purple flower heads occur nearly year-round. These aromatic plants do not like wet feet, so are not very happy during monsoon. Cut back hard to regenerate new growth following the rainy season.
Maurandya antirrhiniflora, snapdragon vine
The short tubular purple flowers of this delicate little vine attract hummingbirds. Bloom season extends from spring to fall, and is encouraged by rainfall or irrigation. Give this plant a fence or trellis to climb on, and it may reach 8-10 feet high. Dies to the ground in winter, but generally comes back strong. Reseeds like crazy. There is also a red-flowering form.
Penstemon baccharifolius, rock penstemon
Here’s a penstemon that produces scarlet-red blooms all summer long. Low growing to 1-2 feet high and 2 feet across. Because of its small size, it’s perfect for tight spaces, narrow entry ways, planters, etc. Hardy to the mid-teens.
Penstemon eatonii, firecracker penstemon
This penstemon stays green all year. Small mounds of dark green leaves grow to about 1 foot high and 2 feet across. One-inch long fiery scarlet-red blooms flowers are densely clustered along the stalks and appear in late winter and early spring.
Penstemon parryi, Parry penstemon
The best penstemon for planting in the Tucson Basin, and it’s a show stopper. Captivating pink flower displays are a sign of early spring. Plant en masse for optimal visual effect and for visiting hummers.
Salvia coccinea, tropical sage
This dependable summer bloomer is on the thirsty side and is not suitable for cold microhabitats, but it will reward you with visiting hummingbirds at the flowers. Another plus is that Lesser Goldfinches relish the seeds—and they are prolific so you’re likely to get some volunteer plants.
Salvia leucantha, Mexican bush sage
Try this fast-growing (to 3-5 feet high and wide) perennial which produces purple (sometimes white) flower spikes in fall. Stems die back when temperatures hit the low 20s, but the roots and crowns tolerate much lower temperatures. Cut to the ground following bloom.
Tecomaria capensis, Cape honeysuckle
Bright green foliage and orange tubular flowers give this woody shrub a lush, tropical look. Pleasing to the eye especially when the blooms, which occur in fall and early winter, are visited by hummingbirds and Verdins. May be trained into a vine-like shape.
Tecoma stans, yellow bells
Tired of so much red and orange in your hummingbird garden? Try this native shrub that sports large yellow flowers resembling little trumpets. Blooms all summer long. Instead of feeding front first as they do at other more slender tubular flowers, hummers are more likely to pierce the bases of the blooms in order to garner nectar. Ditto for Verdins. Carpenter bees love the large blossoms.
©Lynn Hassler, January 2017