A common observation of birders in our area this year has been the scarcity of hummingbirds. They’re still around, just not in the numbers we’re used to seeing. Most years my gardens are full of hummers by now, but this year there are only a few. What you consider that the hummingbird is constantly only hours away from starving to death, I would guess this sort of population anomaly is fairly common. The hummingbird eats its own weight in nectar each day – it has to in order to support the crazy high rate of metabolism that allows it to beat its wings 100 times a second with a heartrate of about 1000 beats per minute. The hummingbird can barely store enough calories in it’s tiny little body to survive overnight. With that kind of intake requirement, it doesn’t take much of a drop in food source to have a big impact on population. We did have early cold spells last year, and it might be that the early cold caught lots of the hummers before they completed their migration. Hummingbirds are easy to attract to your garden. Of course, the instant way is with hummingbird feeders. Mix the “nectar” at one part sugar to 4 parts water. Bring it just to a boil, then let it cool (covered). Store it in the fridge. Be sure and wash and change the feeders every 2 or 3 days, since the nectar will ferment and make the hummingbirds sick. Once
they learn that a feeder has bad nectar, they won’t return. While feeders are a good idea as a constant and controllable source of nectar, I highly encourage the gardener to do a bit of gardening for hummingbirds as well. Many of the plants that grow particularly well around here are also plants that hummingbirds love. Penstemon is a great example – they are abundant and native to our area, and the hummers love ‘em. Agastache is another example, with a wide variety of different versions available for the gardener to choose from. It’s a rare garden we design that doesn’t have both Penstemon and Agastache in it, both for the visual value as well as a bit of help to our hummer friends.
Photo by Russ Thompson - Hummingbird feeding on Mexican Sage
One plant that is particularly loved by hummers is Mexican Sage. You
have to be careful about where you plant it, because it’s barely hardy to our area – in fact it’s not really hardy in most locations. However, if you’re down in Denver, you’re likely to have good luck with it. Even out in areas like Parker, you can get it to work if you are sure and plant it with good southern exposure to avoid prolonged and deep ground cold. The first winter is the most risky, so we recommend only trying it if you can get it in early enough to build a strong root system before winter sets in. Mexican Sage wants at least half a day of sun, and is extremely drought tolerant. We find that it likes good rich soil. The red flower spikes of Mexican Sage began blooming 2 weeks ago in my gardens, and will continue to bloom through the end of the growing season. The stand 3’ to 4’ tall. It’s a rare morning when there aren’t hummingbirds working the many spikes of Mexican Sage outside my office windows. Below are the plants we regularly plant in gardens that the hummingbirds love:
- Columbine (we don’t plant often, but it’s a good early season source for the hummers)
- Bleeding Heart is a good early source as well
- Coral Bells is a good early source
- Lilac is a good early source
- Monarda – especially the red ones.
- Red Salvia – put some early annuals in planters as they love these!
- Butterfly Bush
- Obedient Plant