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Attract Hummingbirds With Summer Flowers
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
I was sitting on the shaded patio the other afternoon moaning about the heat when a darting visitor approached and changed my outlook on the day. A ruby-throated hummingbird decided my hanging basket of pink wave petunias was just the feast for which he had been searching.
As much as a tiger swallowtail butterfly excites me, I can truthfully say that hummingbirds do more to get me enthusiastic about gardening. Notice I said gardening. Sure I like the artificial feeders, but I'm moved when hummingbirds come to my plants. While I'm cooking rib-eye steaks on the grill for my family, nearby the hummingbirds are getting their version in the flower garden.
By planting a garden with a long season of overlapping bloom, we can play host to these miniature birds that fly like they are a cross between a stealth fighter and a helicopter. Go ahead and use some artificial feeders but in the flower garden, choose plants like the petunia, annual red salvia (Salvia splendens), autumn sage (Salvia greggii) and shrimp plants (Pachystachys lutea). One of my favorites that is always for sale and much overlooked is the firebush (Hamelia patens).
Native plants like the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis); coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), which is not invasive like the Japanese honeysuckle; and trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) are much loved by hummingbirds. Even in the shady flower gardens, we can attract hummingbirds with hostas and impatiens.
Those of you who want the best of both worlds, hummingbirds and butterflies, should choose plants like lantana, butterfly bush and butterfly weed. The same recommendation for butterfly gardens holds true for hummingbird gardens -- NO PESTICIDES!
The hummingbird can ingest the pesticide, but many gardeners do not know that these little acrobats also feed on small insects and spiders. It is a bird-eat-bug world out there.
Besides their flying technique, the hummingbirds are unique creatures when it comes to eating. When feeding, they lick up to 13 times a second. Like me, they eat every 10 to 15 minutes from sunrise until sunset and devour more than half their weight in food.
Then, believe it or not, they go to bed hungry, sort of. They actually have to hibernate through the night, decreasing their heart rate and body temperature or they reportedly would starve to death. This should make you not only want to grow more flowers but take better care of the artificial feeders.
There is a lot more to artificial feeders than simply hanging one in a tree. Nectar from flowers provides more nourishment than sugar water. To provide a better diet, buy packages of instant nectar solution or make your own. To make your own, use 1 part white granulated cane sugar to 4 parts water.
You may think this is sugar water, but the big difference is that you need to bring this solution to a boil for 1 1/2 minutes and then let it cool down. It is not necessary to add food coloring. Now you have a mixture much more similar to that of the flower nectar. Our hot weather can cause rapid bacterial growth, so change solutions every three to five days.
One revelation many of you may find shocking comes from the Texas Parks and Wildlife. Many people think they should take down their feeders in the fall and winter to encourage the hummingbirds to migrate, but they don't need to. Whether a bird goes or stays is not determined by your feeder. However, that precious food source might mean life or death to a straggling hummingbird that braves it through the winter north of the tropics.