Cardinal Flower–a favorite native

A large patch of Cardinal Flower will catch the attention of hummers and provide them with nectar to fuel their southbound migration

Cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis, is a great native hummingbird plant.  Like many good hummingbird plants, it has vivid red flowers that hummingbirds love.  What really sets it apart from others is it’s ability to tolerate shady areas of the garden and thrive in less than well-drained soil–most of the best hummer plants demand much more sun and well-drained soil to perform at their best.  It helps that the plant’s peak blooming period, late July through early September here in Minnesota, coincides with the period when fledgling hummingbirds join the adults in our gardens and wild areas seeking nectar, and when all the hummers, adults and young alike, are feeding much more in order to fatten up for the long southbound journey to wintering areas in Mexico and Central America.  I like to say that compared to the spring and early summer, there are twice as many birds around and they are twice as hungry!

The flowers are typically an intense, glowing red

Cardinal flower has an interesting range in North America.  The species ranges throughout the eastern and midwestern states into southern Canada and typically grows in floodplain forests and along stream margins.  Somewhat surprisingly, the range extends into riparian areas in the otherwise arid Southwestern United States, as far west as Southern California.  In the once found an emergent plant blooming in the middle of a stream in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas.

The western subspecies, L. cardinalis ssp. graminea, has narrow leaves than the typical eastern form and I’ve germinated seeds from some western populations that have pink flowers, rather than the typical red.  I planted out many of the seedlings in one of my perennial beds and they have grown and bloomed well for me this year.  The seedlings came true, and the pink flowers seem to attract hummers as well as the red ones.  I had some doubt about their hardiness here when I planted them out late last summer, but they managed to survive last year’s mild winter in my zone 4 garden.

Occasionally, flowers of individual plants or populations may occur in shades of pink or white

Cardinal flower is easy to grow from seed, but the seed does require cold stratification.  Seed is easily collected in quantity from the brown seed heads in the fall.  The seed is very fine, like dust.  I usually collect some seed and wintersow a couple of containers which will then germinate the following spring.  Try not to sow the seed too thickly (very hard to do with such fine seed).  I’ve found the seedlings to be very tough.  I can take a flat that is a solid mat of green seedlings on the surface, rinse the soil away from the tiny roots, and carefully tease apart the many tiny seedlings and pot them up.  Most of them will survive the ordeal, and they can be planted out in the garden in late summer or the following spring.  They will bloom the following summer to fuel the migration of the next generation of hummingbirds.

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Two more new bloomers

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Nepeta sibirica and Macromeria viridiflora

I’ve got a couple of new plants blooming in the garden this year for the first time.  Both are growing and blooming well in the garden here, though neither originates from a location anywhere near the Upper Midwest.

Siberian Catmint (Nepeta sibirica) originates from Siberia south to Mongolia and Northern China.  The popular cultivar ‘Souvenir d’André Chaudron’ is the plant above with the beautiful lavender-blue flowers.  It violates one of my cardinal rules of hummingbird gardening, which is to choose only plants that are derived from species that are hummingbird-pollinated (or at least bird-pollinated) in the wild.  The rule was to ensure that all the plants in my garden produced copious nectar.  As a general rule, plants with flowers that are pollinated by birds produce more nectar and provide more total sugar to their visitors than plants pollinated by bees, hawkmoths, or butterflies.

Rules are made to be broken, however, and after wrestling with the issue for some time, I decided to make an exception for this plant.  I made the exception for a number of reasons.  First, I was smitten with the plant when I saw it growing here in Red Wing in the garden of Terry Yockey, chief Master Gardener hereabouts and a garden writer with her own website.  She and others have touted Siberian catmint as attractive to hummingbirds.  I was won over by the beautiful flower color–I’m always looking for colors to provide some cool visual relief from the hot reds that predominate in my garden and are typical of hummingbird-pollinated flowers.  My research showed it to be easy to grow and overwinter here in zone 4, and I considered it a bonus that it readily spreads without becoming invasive.

Terry kindly provided me with a few starts from her garden last year.  Initially, the plants languished because they were planted out late in the heat of mid-summer and had to complete with some well-established neighbors.  They survived the summer, and breezed through our mild (for us) winter.  I was amazed by how much the spread in just one year.  They came up early and have grown into erect, full, multi-stemmed plants, and are blooming very nicely here in early summer.  I haven’t seen much hummer use yet, only two visits over the past week, but my hummers at this point in the year tend to be feeder junkies before my garden has reached full bloom.  Though I haven’t seen much hummer use yet, I have noticed a lot of interest from hummingbird moths.  I’ve seen moth visits on the catmint every day since they have started blooming, sometimes two moths at the same time visiting the patch.  I haven’t seen the moths visit anything other than the catmint this year.  I’ll continue to monitor the activity as the summer progresses–I hope the catmint will continue to bloom long into the summer, and it will be regularly visited by hummingbirds, because it seems to be an easy plant to grow here, and it is beautiful.

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Giant Trumpets–Macromeria viridiflora

Giant trumpets (Macromeria viridiflora) is not from quite so far away–it is native to the mountains in New Mexico and Arizona south into Mexico.  Although you might find it surprising that a hummingbird plant native to the Southwestern U.S. would be hardy here in Minnesota, there are quite a few that can survive our cold winters–coral bells (Heuchera sanguinea), scarlet hedge nettle (Stachys coccinea), and a number of different penstemons, to name a few.  I was able to obtain some seed a couple of years ago to try.  The seeds are unusual–shiny and white, which gives rise to another common name for the species–pearlseed.  I wintersowed the seed, and successfully germinated a few which I grew on and planted out at the end of the summer last year.  The plants all survived the relatively mild winter without any special protection.  I’m surprised that they are blooming already–I wasn’t expecting bloom until mid-summer.  I am very pleased with the plants so far–they have upright stiff stems and wonderfully textured leaves.  The flowers, though not very colorful, are bright and stand out at the top of the stems.  Although the flowers aren’t the typical red of hummingbird-pollinated plants, field research has shown it to be pollinated in the wild primarily by hummingbirds.  Interestingly, the flowers in the southern part of the plant’s range, where larger, longer-billed hummer species visit, have longer flowers than in the northern part of the plant’s range.  I haven’t witnessed any hummer visits yet, but I only have one plant in bloom so far.  I’ll keep watching with my fingers crossed!

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Iris fulva action

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Iris fulva

Copper iris, Iris fulva, is a litte-mentioned hummingbird plant that has grown on me over the years.  It is native to wetland habitats in the South Central United States, as far north as Southern Illinois.  This iris has been the subject of many scientific studies examining the nature of hybridization in the wild with closely related species.  It is a member of a group of iris native to the Southern U.S. collectively known as Louisiana Irises.  This group has provided the raw material from which many horticultural varieties have been derived.  Field studies have revealed that Iris fulva is pollinated in the wild by hummingbirds–these studies are what prompted me to give it a try in my garden in Minnesota.

One may assume that any species native to the Lower Mississippi River region would not survive zone 4 winters here in Minnesota.  I had read reports of it surviving in zone 5, so I went ahead and purchased some mail order plants, planted them in my beds, and crossed my fingers.  I’ve been delighted that they’ve sailed through some tough winters here, without any winter damage.  In fact, they are doing so well that they have spread nicely into a sizable patch where they were initially planted.  This, despite that fact they they would probably like more sun and more water than they get where they’ve been planted.

If it has a fault, it is probably that it has a short bloom season–just a few weeks, usually in the first part of June.  This year they were early, reaching full bloom in late May.  I like that they bloom at a time of year when relatively little natural nectar is available in my garden.  Every year I’ve seen at least a few visits by hummers, which thrills me.  This year for the first time during peak bloom, I had a hummingbird defending the patch from other hummers.  It seems like every time I looked at the patch, that hummer was either visiting one copper-colored flower after another, or was chasing away a would-be thief from his patch.  Now that they’ve spread I think I’ll dig some up to start a new patch in a sunnier, lower and wetter spot in the garden to see if they’ll do even better in conditions that more closely mimic their native wetland habitat.

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Hummingbirds out my window

Hummingbird action at the feeders had been slow in May until somebody flipped a switch a few days ago. Here is a 30 second video of action at one of the feeders that isn’t being actively defended by a territorial male.

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New Bloomers

Every year, I eagerly anticipate the first blooms of plants new to my garden.  The anticipation is particularly keen when the plants are perennials that I’ve managed to start from seed, plant out, and successfully overwinter.  Will the blooms be worth the effort expended, and the long wait?  Will hummingbirds appreciate the new offerings?

Ipomopsis aggregata, native to mountains in the western U.S.

Though this season is still young, I’ve already been through this anticipation with two new plants in my garden.  The first of the two to bloom in the garden was Ipomopsis aggregata, a plant native to the mountains of the western United States.  It is of particular interest to me because I spent two memorable summers at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory north of Crested Butte, Colorado studying the pollination biology and evolution of this species with the field crew of Dr. Diane Campbell, a professor in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine.

I obtained seed of this species from seed exchanges a number of times, but had difficulty (ok, no success at all!) trying to germinate it by wintersowing.  Frustrated with my failed attempts, I took my remaining seed out to my sand bed a couple of autumns ago and sowed it directly in the bed.  Lo and behold, a few seeds germinated and last summer I had three rosettes of their finely directed leaves develop.  The largest of the rosettes is the only one that has bloomed this year; I’m not sure if the other two will bloom this year or wait one more year.  For those of you familiar with the related Texas native standing cypress (Ipomopsis rubra), this is a much shorter plant (my blooming plant is a bit over a foot tall).  Standing cypress is much easier to grow here, and is much more widely available, but it is nice to meet the challenge of growing a difficult species, especially one that you have connected with in it’s native setting.

Penstemon triflorus, a native of Texas

The second much anticipated bloom was of Penstemon triflorus.  This is a beautiful penstemon, native to Texas.  The leaves are a deep, shiny green, unlike all the other penstemon I’ve grown.  I obtained seed of this from a number of seed exchanges, and finally had some luck germinating it last year.  I planted them out last summer in my raised, limestone sand-amended bed.  Because I didn’t want to take any chances with it not surviving the winter, I covered the plants last fall with bags of leaves and a tarp last November.  The plants sailed through the winter, and wasted no time this spring sending up flowering stalks.  They are in full, glorious bloom right now, with beautiful magenta flowers atop two foot tall flowering spikes.

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Waking Up–First Hummingbird of the Year

My sister put it bluntly a couple of weeks ago:  “Wake up!  Spring is here!  Your most recent post is titled ‘Putting the Garden to Bed’!”  I admit to being a bit of a Rip Van Winkle, and I promise to eventually finish what I started last Fall about various methods overwintering plants, but there are more pressing things now in the garden.  Spring is insanely busy if you are a gardener in the Upper Midwest, especially if you propagate your own plants.  So many seeds to sow, cuttings to take care of, seedlings to nurse along.  When the weather outside allows, one gets work done preparing beds for planting and digging new ones.  Fortunately, our March temperatures here were much more like May’s, and it was dry enough to work the beds outside. I was able to get a lot done–I even planted some perennials.  I am much further along than I usually am at this time of year.

Despite the weather being ahead of schedule, the hummers were behind, at least in my yard.  I had my feeders out a month ago, waiting for what I was sure would be my first April hummingbird.  I’ve had hummers as early as May 1st, and they always arrive by the time the first week of May is over, but April hummingbirds have eluded me.  Every April 30th, I have a vigil after dinner at the feeders, hoping to spot a hummer in the gradually fading light at end of the month.  I have always watched and waited in vain.  Once after such a vigil, I woke up early the first morning in May to eat breakfast before work.  As I ate my oatmeal and idly gazed out the dining room window, a hummer arrived for his breakfast at the feeders.  What was frustrating about seeing the hummingbird so early in the morning on the first day of May was realizing that he must have arrived here by the last day of April, since hummingbirds migrate by day, unlike many other migratory birds!

This year’s vigil yielded the same disappointing results of previous years, despite our record early Spring.  I was so certain that this would be the year!  May 1st came and went.  May 2nd, still no hummers.  This morning, still no activity.

After arriving home from work, I went out to putter in the garden and greet any new arrivals.  I thought I heard a hummingbird chittering in the front yard, but no sightings.  After dinner, I went back outside–surely, there must be hummers out there.  Over the course of the week in and about town, I’d seen and heard the first Baltimore Orioles and Yellow Warblers of the year, surely the hummers must have arrived, too.  While weeding a bed, it happened–a quick fly-by, but was it a hummer?  I was able to confirm it before it was out of sight, but it was frustrating to not get a long look at it.  Then, within another few minutes, a male arrived to perch on a bare tree branch within view of the feeders–at last, a good view!  Then, before another minute went by, a female arrived at one of the feeders and took a long drink, thankfully unmolested by the male perched within view.  Finally, after seven long months, hummer season is here again!

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Putting the Garden to Bed

Too much time has passed since my last post–my last remaining hummer departed soon after I made it, and the remaining flowers all succumbed to frost.  Once the hummers are gone, I am free to begin the sequence of chores I go through to get my hummingbird garden through the long winter sleep.

Many of the chores are related to overwintering the plants in my garden that are not hardy in my zone 4 climate.  Most of my garden beds are devoted to plants that aren’t perennial for me, but there are various techniques for saving plants that won’t survive the winter outdoors uncovered.  I employ four different methods for overwintering non-hardy plants–saving seed, overwintering cuttings indoors, digging up plants and storing them dormant in a cool garage, and “extreme mulching” of outdoor beds involving the use of bags of leaves and a tarp.  I will discuss each of these methods in the coming days.  I’ll get started today with saving seed.

my seed stash and storage bin

Saving seed:

Saving seed is in many ways the simplest and easiest method for overwintering plants.  Simply collect ripe seed from plants at the end of summer and beginning of autumn and store them in labelled packages in a cool, dry place over the winter.  I got a deal a few years ago on a box of coin envelopes at an office store that I use for storing seed.  I save a lot of seed, and I’ve made nary a dent in the number of envelopes in the box.  Little space is needed to store seed and unlike cuttings, no maintenance is required over the winter–just store and forget them until you need to start plants from the seed in the late winter/early spring.  Ideally you want to store your seeds in a cool, dry location.  I keep my envelopes of seed in a covered plastic tub I keep in my basement, organized in large envelopes by types of seed to make them easier to find.

Though storage is easy and carefree, it becomes much more work once you start the seeds indoors in the late winter or spring.  Once you have germinated seedlings, you will need to water, thin, and fertilize them, harden them off, and generally fuss over them until they are ready to be planted out.  This will require time, space, and equipment for an indoor light set up.  I’ll be sure to post on this subject more in-depth in a few months once it is time to get seeds started.

Overwintering plants in seed form is best reserved for those plants that come true from seed, and that bloom early enough in the summer to justify the effort.  Probably the easiest hummingbird plants to start from seed are the various seed cultivars of Salvia coccinea (‘Lady in Red’, ‘Coral Nymph’, ‘Forest Fire’).  Other good ones to try from seed include Salvia subrotunda, Salvia splendens (Yvonne’s Salvia), and Ipomoea x multifida (Cardinal Climber).  I’m hoping that Petunia exserta will also turn out to be a good garden annual to grow from seed every year–I’ve got seed saved and will see how well they will germinate, grow and bloom in my garden next year.


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Not hummer-less yet . . .

Salvia atrocyanea bloom peaks in October before frost (with Yvonne's salvia in the background)

I thought the lone hummingbird I observed on October 5th would be my last observed hummer this year, which is about average for my yard.  After that date, I went four days without seeing a hummer in the yard.  The cold reality of a nearly seven month period without the entertainment the little rascals provide was beginning to set in.

Salvia darcyi, still blooming strongly

Yesterday afternoon, October 10th, I was gazing idly out the dining room window and was surprised to briefly observe a juvenile female visiting the two feeders I still have out.  I saw another hummer this evening (October 11th) perching on a dead branch above my flower beds.  It might have been a different bird, as this one ignored the feeders and visited only flowers.  There may well have been hummingbirds in my yard during that four day gap without observed hummers.  This time of year, the flower beds in the yard are still full of blooms producing nectar, and without much if any competition, hummingbirds are much more discreet as they feed.  Hummingbird squabbling and chasing is almost non-existent.

Salvia 'Mulberry Jam', still hummer-worthy in October

Every year at this time I’m struck by the contrast between the beginning of the hummingbird season in May and the end in October.  In May, I have ever-increasing numbers of hummers from the very beginning of the month and I struggle to have sufficient numbers of plants in bloom to feed them all.  Feeders are necessary to have enough nectar available in the yard to feed all the birds because so little is in bloom.  At the end of the year, however, the hummingbird population dwindles until the last bird leaves, but unless there has been an early frost there is still a wealth of blooms available for the birds.  Many of the Salvias, in particular, continue peaking until frost finally cuts them down, usually after the last hummingbirds have departed.

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A Petunia for hummingbirds


Petunia exserta flowers close-up

The common garden petunia (Petunia x hybrida) often shows up on lists of plants recommended for hummingbirds.  Hummers will visit hybrid petunias, especially if there is nothing better in the neighborhood, but if you plant them your hummers may be left wishing that you’d plant a better nectar-producer.  If you rely too heavily on plants that don’t produce a lot of nectar, you may lose hummer visits to neighbors who maintain feeders or plant beds full of better hummingbird plants.  The parents of the hybrid petunia are Petunia axillaris (with fragrant white flowers pollinated by hawkmoths) and P. integrifolia (purple flowers pollinated by bees).  Neither hawkmoth nor bee flowers generally produce great volumes of nectar, so it is no surprise that the hybrid petunias don’t produce much nectar either, especially since nectar production is not a trait selected for by Petunia breeders.

Petunia exserta: a rare, hummingbird-pollinated species Petunia from Brazil

Though hybrid petunias aren’t great hummer plants, petunia-lovers need not despair!  There is one Petunia species that is hummingbird-pollinated in the wild.  Petunia exserta, not described in the botanical literature until 1987, is a very rare Petunia native to a small region in Brazil.  Red flowers, exserted stamens (clearly visible in the close-up picture at the top of this post) and presumably greater nectar-production distinguish this species from other Petunias.  Ever since I read about this rare Petunia, I’ve been lusting after it but hadn’t ever been able to find a source for it–until this year!  Annie’s Annuals has it available at their nursery in Richmond, CA and through their mail-order catalog.  They grew their plants from seed provided by Joseph Tychonievich, a graduate student in horticulture at Michigan State University and proprietor of the blog Greensparrow Gardens.

I obtained a few plants late this last summer from Annie’s Annuals and put a few into the ground and one into a pot.  I’ve been collecting a lot of seed so next year I’ll be able to grow enough plants to give Petunia exserta a thorough test in my garden.  I’ve been very happy with it during my limited trial this year, and have witnessed hummingbirds systematically visiting the blooms.  The plants were already blooming when I unpacked the mail-order boxes from Annie’s Annuals in August.  When the weather started cooling down in late summer they really started exploding into bloom.  I will try it next year in pots and as a front-of-the border plant in my beds.

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And then there was one . . .

Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue' & Yvonne's Salvia, still blooming

The last week of September saw my hummingbird numbers dwindle from about five or so down to one seen on the last day of the month.  Yesterday, the first day of October, I was lucky to briefly observe one shy hummer feeding from Salvia guaranitica and a volunteerS. subrotunda in my flower border.   Though I still have feeders up, I’ve recently seen only occasionally use of them; most of these late juvenile hummers seem to prefer visiting flowers.  With the hoards departed for the points south of here, the few remaining hummers had more than enough flowers to meet their needs, so territorial squabbles became infrequent.

I’m often asked when hummingbird feeders should be taken down.  Contrary to what some folks have heard, hummingbirds are not held up in migration by continued food availability.  If they were, I would still have dozens of hummingbirds in my yard today!  Decreasing day length as summer winds down gives hummingbirds the urge to migrate.  Their energetically-demanding long-distance migration to Mexico and Central America is fueled by fat deposits accumulated this time of year through their voracious feeding efforts.  Particularly once the inevitable first freeze lays waste to flowers, any late hummers still in the area may rely on artificial feeders to provide them with the energy needed to continue south before winter closes in.   I usually leave at least one feeder up into November, when nightly freezing temperatures make it difficult to keep thawed nectar available.

When I didn’t see any hummingbirds this morning at the flowers or feeders as I wandered around the yard with my morning cup of coffee, I thought that perhaps yesterday’s hummer sighting may have been my last for the next seven months.  I set up the sprinkler to water my flower beds (we’ve had less than an inch of rain in the month of September, and have no rain on the horizon), turned on the water, and returned inside the house.  When I looked out of the dining room window to check on the sprinklers, I saw a hummer bathing in the spray of water!

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