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Native Flowering Plants: Hummingbirds

Good plants; good news.

Photo by Maria Sheehan

E-Bird, Cornell University's massive, crowd-sourced global science project of the avian set, tells us hummingbird sightings in the middle of the Chesapeake watershed will peak soon. The ruby throated hummingbird, the only hummingbird to breed east of the Mississippi River, arrives in the mid-Atlantic in late April and stays through October when they head back to Mexico, a layover stop on their journey to Central America for the winter. You can use native plants all growing season to lure hummingbirds to your garden.

In spring, the bloom of the Eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) coincides with the arrival of hummingbirds. This 2 to 3 foot high perennial wildflower blooms with intricacies as delicate and fascinating as the hummingbirds themselves. Best of all, it self sows to create more plants if you allow the seed heads to stay and avoid cleaning up beneath the plants in fall.

Native honeysuckle vine (Lonicera sempervirens) blooms follow close behind, This plant is a literal hummingbird magnet, My best proof of this is a small 12 x 12 foot shaded plot I gardened in located one block off of the busy 4 lane Connecticut Avenue corridor in Washington DC. Native honeysuckle may be my favorite native plant. So, shortly after moving in, I planted a one quart honeysuckle vine in the sunniest part of that shady plot and, a few months later during the morning rush hour, I walked down the steps and there was a hummingbird!

Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica), the 2 to 3 foot high perennial flower with red and yellow blooms and dark green sturdy foliage, is also said to be highly attractive to hummingbirds. While this perennial can be finicky to get established and needs fairly moist soil, once it has, you will be good to go.

In late June, red bee balm (Monarda didyma) begins to bloom. The red tubular flowers seem to be irresistible to hummingbirds. A couple of years back, the mecca for native plants in our area, Mt. Cuba Center, tested plants to determine which flowers were most attractive to hummingbirds. The variety of red bee balm, Monarda didyma 'jacob cline' was the clear winner. This is the red bee balm you will frequently find in local nurseries. These are tall perennial flowers that need sun and moist soil.

As mid-summer arrives, the tall, spiky blooms of liatris (Liatris spicata) attract hummingbirds. This is another tall perennial flower with spiky blooms that grows in full sun and naturally grows in moist soils. This perennial is more drought tolerant though and can grow in average soils.

Cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), blooming in August, send up spikes of red tubular flowers. These 2 to 4 foot high perennial flowers grow in moist soils in sun to part shade. This plant must have moist soil and can't be allowed to dry out. I have not grown the red lobelia but have had great luck with blue lobelia, also reported to be attractive to hummingbirds. These are so called "short lived" perennials meaning it is sort of an itinerant plant. My experience with the blue lobelia is that a plant lives for two to three years, but in that time, reseeds if in moist soils and will establish.

Last, obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) can take your hummingbird garden through late summer. This 2 to 4 foot high perennial blooms with stalks of pink or white tubular flowers in full sun and average to moist soils.

Many other flowers attract hummingbirds. Based on a loose, informal perusal of readily available information for the Chesapeake watershed, the consensus seems to be these are some of the best. Scientists say hummingbirds get about half of their sustenance from flowers; the other half comes from an array of insects from mosquitoes to gnats to aphids. So, it is important to plant a layered garden -- ground covers, perennials, shrubs and trees, and to avoid spraying pesticides if you want to see hummingbirds.

Now the good news -- the population of hummingbirds was found to increase between 1966 and 2014 in a study with some limitations and, more recently, various smaller regions have reported increases. Scientists seem to feel the population of ruby throated hummingbirds is steady!


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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