Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Planting an Early Spring Garden to Attract Ruby Throated Hummingbirds

Like clockwork, the first ruby throated hummingbird scout shows up in our garden the last week of March. This has held true since I first started recording their return date eight years ago. You can watch their migration to estimate the arrival time in your area and document your first sighting here
I always put a few feeders up by middle of March in case we get an early bird, but the best way to attract these tiny, high energy hummingbirds and encourage them to stay in your garden, is to include early spring blooming plants they love into your landscape plan.  

These are the most frequently visited early flowering plants in our garden: 
Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) climbs up a 16 foot post and starts flowering in early March, inviting hummers to drink the sweet nectar with its flashy red blooms. It is a high climbing vine and an excellent option for a trellis, arbor or fence and can even work as a ground cover.

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) are dangling their dainty flowers in anticipation of their favorite pollinator’s arrival. The blooms, with their backwards pointed nectar tubes, are the perfect shape for long tongued pollinators. The extended stamens make for easy pollination when the hummers' body brushes against them. These classic woodland plants look fabulous in a semi shade situation and are great pollinator plant for hummers as well as butterflies.


Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) will soon be in bloom in the woodland garden to the delight of these feisty birds.  The bright red flowers are a magnet for these aerial acrobats as well as other butterflies and several native bee species. 

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), which grows gingerly up several trees that stand regally along our creek garnish large, orange, tubular shaped flowers encouraging these little nectar drinkers to stop by.



Native azalea buds will begin to open in the next few weeks. Florida Flame Azaleas (R. austrinum) attract hummingbirds with their orange or yellow trumpet shaped flowers in April. Following in May, the Flame Azalea (R. calendulaceum), adorning gorgeous orange blooms, will liven the woodland gardens with their bright blooms.


Our stately tulip poplar trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) are not actually a poplar tree, but a member of the magnolia family, and begin to bloom in April attracting many insects, pollinators and birds, including ruby throated hummingbirds and cedar waxwings. The tulip shaped flowers often capture water from spring showers, serving double duty as a water source for wildlife in the safety of the tree canopy. 


Are you noticing a pattern here? Hummers love brightly colored tubular flowers. Try adding a few of these plants that bloom in symphony with the  spring arrival of the ruby throated hummingbirds. These native flowers, that require a long tongue to extract the nectar, have a symbiotic harmony with hummers who have high caloric needs and stay airborne when feeding. 

Hummingbirds also need...

Insects. Hummingbirds are big bug eaters. In fact, they need the protein and will eat many soft bodied insects such as gnats, aphids, spiders and mosquitoes. To ensure that these protein sources are a part of your garden do not use insecticides or pesticides.
Sap. Perhaps you have yellow-bellied sapsuckers [woodpeckers] in your trees. Ruby throated hummingbirds and these sapsuckers have a special relationship. Hummingbirds often feed on the tree sap (similar to plant nectar) and insects from the holes that these woodpeckers created, giving them a protein and nectar source from one spot. (additional reading see yellow-bellied sapsuckers post and yellow-bellied sapsuckers and their feeding holes post)

Take it one step further...

You may even encourage ruby throated hummingbirds to breed in your garden by supplying them with nesting material. Female hummers build nests from a variety of materials including moss, lichen, and soft plant materials, like the hairs from lambs ear leaves, that the she will bond together with spider webs. Nests are the size of half a walnut shell, and are typically constructed high up in the tree canopy, in a forked branch of a tree, sheltered from wind, sun, rain and predators.  Don't be surprised if you don't find a nest; they are discreet. But you'll know they have nested when the juveniles are spotted visiting blooms in your garden mid-summer.
Providing natural feeding stations for these solitary hummingbirds by including early blooming plants will lure them to your garden and entice them to make your garden their seasonal home. You'll be entertained by their aerobatic displays and constant energy for months to come. 

16 comments:

  1. Gosh, that Honeysuckle vine is impressive! And beautiful! I noticed the Red Buckeyes (and of course the Azaleas) and other hummer favorites blooming when we were in Charleston and Savannah. I thought for sure I would see one, but I didn't. At one point, I heard their high-pitched song, but I didn't see them. Good points about having early blooms ready for them. I won't see them here until early May, but it's always a highlight of the year when they return. :) One of their favorite nesting materials in my neighborhood is "cotton" from the neighbors' Cottonwood trees--so messy, but perfect fluff for a hummer nest.

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    1. The scouts are starting to arrive. They definitely add another layer of energy to the garden with their fast flying. They are so resourceful using regional materials to meet their needs. I bet cotton makes for a nice soft nest. I'm glad you enjoyed your time in our region.

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  2. `A great post! We have coral honeysuckle, etc. in late March, “waiting for hummingbirds.”

    In the Piedmont, we’d spot the first male scouts in late March. Here in the mountains, we sometimes don’t seen them until much later.

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    1. Thanks Lisa! Yes, they are on their schedule. This back and forth between winter and spring has been crazy but the plants and pollinators always seem to coordinate their arrival/emergence perfectly.

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  3. Have you seen any yet? I was afraid I might have missed some while we were away. My Red Buckeye isn't that close to bloom, neither are any of my Columbine. Honeysuckle has been blooming for a few weeks...and have some in the woods that are nature planted. I bought a John Clayton L. sempervirens and it is in the ground. Can't wait for it to bloom.
    Great post Karin. I really want more native vines....tried Crossvine last year and it wasn't in a good place. Will try another one this year.

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    1. Interesting Janet that we are slightly ahead of you with plant emergence/bloom. Our crossvine is one of the natives that found itself on our property. I've tried to be very diligent while clearing invasives along the creek so as not to disturb this vine. It's so pretty. Your sempervirens will be gorgeous once it gets established. Great for pollinators and birds.

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  4. So much great info! Thanks for posting this. Didn't know about the insects they eat (and need). And that they use spider webs. (Some fuel to tell my neighbors who are afraid of spiders and used to hire a company to spray their foundation. So sad.) EVERYTHING is connected. Everything, everything, everything.

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    1. Indeed! Our garden ecosystems are critical for the survival of so many of these native insects, pollinators, and birds. There are far too many 'sterile' gardens that are wastelands for these beneficial critters. Thanks for visiting the blog Alyse!

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  5. I have lots of Columbine and Trumpet Honeysuckle, but here they don't start blooming until May (sometimes June for the Honeysuckle). Of course, the Hummers normally don't arrive until May 1. Once I'm out of peanuts I will put up our hummingbird feeder for any early arrivals.

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    1. Amazing how the bloom times are perfect for their arrival.

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  6. Hi Karin, I enjoyed this very informative post! My coral honeysuckle, native azaleas and columbine are all beginning to bloom now. I look forward to these delightful birds each year. I knew about their need for insects ( my garden should be a banquet for them!) but did not know about the relationship between hummers and woodpeckers. Nature is truly remarkable in how the ecosystem is woven together for the benefit of all, if we support it and don't mess it up.

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    1. The relationship with plants and animals is fascinating. I wish more people who understand this and be more careful in protecting the environment so that we humans can live harmoniously with them instead of obliterating their space.

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  7. How interesting that they are so on schedule every year! I love hummingbirds. I read that they usually visit the same place every year, too, if they find a spot they like, which is fun to think about! I don't put up feeders, but I have a lot of plants for them. The red Columbine is coming up and my honeysuckle is leafing out, so maybe in two or three more weeks...

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    1. I agree that they return to a place that provides for them. One year I was late putting up my feeder and the hummer arrived and kept hovering at the hanger where I put up a feeder. They know where their feeding spots are.

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  8. we support it and don't mess it up.


    Royal1688

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