Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

June 9, 2014

PLATEAU GARDENING: Attracting hummingbirds

By C. Rae Hozer
Chronicle contributor

CROSSVILLE — The University of Tennessee Extension publication "W305 Hummingbird Gardening in Tennessee" is free for download at utextension.tennessee.edu/publications/Documents/W305.pdf (or at your county UT Extension office) has a lot of great information for homeowners who wish to attract hummingbirds to their yards. Suggestions from that booklet are included in this article.

During a conversation about my butterfly and hummingbird wildflower meadow, a neighbor new to our state asked if it was too late to hang out a hummingbird feeder. The answer to that is no. Attracting hummingbirds can be easier from July through October than in springtime because the highest number of hummers travel through Tennessee during fall migration. These little birds stop along their flight path south where food is plentiful. Nectar and insects are foods that fuel their trip to Central America. Quite a number of hummingbirds move through our state during spring migration (April 1 through mid-May) as well, but at a faster pace.

A sugar-water feeder can lure hummingbirds to your location. Nectar-rich flowers increase your yard’s appeal. Nectar makes up about 50 percent of the hummingbird daily diet and insects the other half. Having foliage plants which provide a good home for insects or food which attracts insects can be as important as blooms. Other features in your landscape help determine whether migrating hummers return the next year or build a nest. Hummingbirds need water, shelter with places to perch and to feel safe from predators.       

Nectar flowers: The best flower colors are red, purple, hot pink, orange, blue, white and yellow. (However, yellow is also a favorite flower color for bees. To avoid competition with bees, don’t choose feeders with yellow flowers as part of their design.) Tubular and trumpet-shaped flowers hold more nectar. Bees and other competitors have difficulty reaching nectar when the corolla (tube-part) is lengthy, but that’s no problem with a hummer’s long tongue.

Plant variety is important. Include low-growing nectar producing herbaceous plants but also vines, shrubs, and trees in your landscape. Plan to have some nectar-bearing flowers in bloom throughout the hummingbird season (April through October). Spring-flowering plants include the red buckeye bush (Aesculus pavia), wild columbine and wild phlox, flowering quince and azaleas. Place hanging baskets with annuals like red fuchsia outdoors to attract hummers in early spring. (Remember to bring tender plants indoors when days or nights are frosty.)

In late spring and early summer when danger of frost is past, window boxes and large flower pots can be used to offer those same annuals, petunias or geraniums. Coral honeysuckle blooms from mid-spring through fall. Pinks, penstemons and red or pink pentas bloom in springtime. Vines for summer include orange trumpet creeper, cypress vine and cardinal climber. Red monarda (bee balm), lantana, hibiscus and butterfly bush (white or purple) are other summer pleasers.

Late summer and autumn bloomers are important, too. Butterfly weed and orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) are wildflowers. There are both perennial and annual Salvias (sages) which flower late in the season.   

Insect food: Soft-bodied insects and small invertebrates that ruby-throats find tasty are mosquitoes, spiders, gnats, fruit flies, small bees, larvae, aphids and insect eggs. During nesting season the percentage of daily insect intake spikes to 75 percent. Wooded areas with lots of leafy vegetation near water support many insects making an ideal habitat for nesting. Insects and their eggs are found on tree leaves and on bark.

The nectar of certain tree blossoms is important because it attracts insects rather than as food for the birds. The Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) is one example. Ripe and rotting fruit also draws insects. Insects thrive in the humidity of un-mowed, natural areas with closely spaced flowering plants, as well.

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Plateau Gardening written by Master Gardeners for gardeners in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland Region. Contact UT Extension Cumberland County at P.O. Box 483, Crossville, TN 38557 (931-484-6743) answers to horticulture questions, free publications and to learn about the Master Gardener program. Send email comments or yard and garden inquiries to Master Gardener Rae (MGardenerRae@frontiernet.net).