Recommended Hummingbird Plants for Upper Midwest

When I give talks about hummingbird gardening, I provide audience members with an annotated list of recommended hummingbird plants for Minnesota.  One of the points I always make when I introduce the list to my audience is that many lists of hummingbird plants available in books, on the internet, and at garden centers include many plants that really aren’t very good hummer plants (e.g. petunias, daylillies).  Another frequently encountered problem with these lists is the inclusion of whole genera (e.g. Penstemon, Aquilegia) when only certain species within the genera are good hummer plants.

Plants on my list should work well for any gardener in the Upper Midwest or Northeast.  Over the past few years I’ve honed the list and will continue to revise it as needed.  I’ve reproduced the list below:

Recommended Hummingbird Plants for Minnesota

by Donald Mitchell 

(plants w/ * are easiest to find and grow here; most do best in full sun unless otherwise noted)

  • Perennials— In order of bloom:
    • Native Columbine* (Aquilegia canadensis) Eastern US and MN native, hardy throughout state. Earliest blooming native hummer plant. Tolerates shade. Avoid hybrids—they have bee- or moth-pollinated parents, less nectar.
    • Coral Bells (Heuchera sanguinea) native of southwest, but hardy here. Early bloomer. Avoid fancy-foliaged Heuchera cultivars—less nectar.
    • Scarlet Bugler (Penstemon barbatus)  Native of the western U.S. does well here in well-drained soils. Blooms early-mid season. Many but not all penstemons are good hummingbird plants, choose western species w/ red flowers.
    • Bee Balm* (Monarda didyma) Mid-season bloomer, native to eastern US but not MN. Select red-blooming mildew-resistant variety, e.g. ‘Jacob Cline.’  Native M. fistulosa is not hummingbird-pollinated, less attractive.
    • Royal Catchfly (Silene regia) Another mid-season bloomer, native to eastern U.S., but not MN. Needs well-drained soils.
    • Cardinal Flower* (Lobelia cardinalis)  Native to eastern U.S., including Minnesota. Great mid-late season bloomer, likes moister soils. Shade tolerant.
  • Annuals—most of these are actually perennials where they are native but they grow quickly enough to work well as garden annuals for us. Many will bloom throughout the summer if started early from seed or cuttings.
    • Salvia—Avoid perennial salvias and those not native to the Americas. Some salvias (e.g. Pineapple Sage, S. elegans) are great hummer plants, but bloom in Fall, too late for us. Salvia foliage is fragrant, making up for hummingbird flower’s lack of scent.  Most will reseed in the garden.
      • Texas or Scarlet sage* (S. coccinea) Easy from seed, blooms all summer. Many cultivars/colors available, including popular ‘Lady in Red.’
      • Scarlet sage* (S. splendens) Easy from seed. Provides impressive red statement to advertise to hummers. Avoid short cultivars. Good taller cultivar (2-3 ft) is ‘Lighthouse.’  ‘Yvonne’s’ is a very tall (to 6 ft) cultivar; see resources below for seed source.
      • Anise sage (Salvia guaranitica), including the popular cultivar ‘Black and Blue.’  One of the few great hummer plants w/o red flowers.
      • Autumn sage (S. greggii) small shrub with wide variety of available flower colors, contrary to common name it blooms all summer
      • Many other new-world Salvias are great hummer plants, but difficult to find in local nurseries—try mail-order for plants and/or seeds: Salvia praeclara, S. subrotunda, S. miniata, S. blepharophylla, S. microphylla, S. darcyi, S. involucrata, many others.
    • Flowering Tobacco (Nicotiana)  Avoid the commonly-available scented species and hybrids (e.g. N. sylvestris, alata, x sanderae), these are moth-pollinated, don’t have as much nectar, and are not as attractive to hummers.
      • Nicotiana lansgsdorfii  Long-blooming species with unusual greenish-yellow flowers. 2-3 feet tall.
      • Nicotiana mutabilis  Taller than N. langsdorfii, but doesn’t get blooming until later in the summer. Flowers start out white and age to dark pink.  A great hummer plant.
    • Standing Cypress (Ipomopsis rubra)  Tall spikes with finely dissected foliage. Sometimes noted as biennial, but acts as an annual for me. Will reseed itself in the garden, but will bloom earlier if started from seed indoors.
    • Canna* (Canna indica) Try species-type cannas with small red flowers, rather than the frilly-flowered hybrids. Rhizomes multiply rapidly underground and are easily lifted and stored over winter.
  • Vines—many good options here, both woody perennial vines and annuals
    • Woody Perennial
      • Trumpet or Coral Honeysuckle* (Lonicera sempervirens & Lonicera x brownii ‘Dropmore scarlet’)  Eastern U.S. native, but not MN. Peak bloom early summer, but will bloom sporadically into fall. Many cultivars available. Hybrid ‘Dropmore Scarlet’ is hardier, into zone 3.
      • Trumpet Creeper* (Campsis radicans)  Hardy in S MN. Native to eastern U.S. but not MN. Blooms mid-late summer with large red flowers. Yellow-flowered cultivar and hybrids available, but may not be as attractive to hummers.
    • Annuals—many good ones to try, need full sun
      • Scarlet Runner Bean* (Phaseolus coccineus)
      • Small Red Morning Glory (Ipomoea coccinea)
      • Cypress Vine (Ipomoea quamaclit)
      • Cardinal Creeper* (Ipomoea x multifida)
      • Spanish Flag* (Mina lobata)
      • Chilean Glory Vine (Eccremocarpus scaber)
  • Trees/Shrubs—There are no good hummingbird-pollinated trees or shrubs reliably hardy in zone 4.  Red horsechestnut (Aesculus pavia) marginally hardy in MN.  Often-recommended Weigela (native to Asia) produces little nectar. Asian honeysuckles are somewhat attractive to hummers, but many are invasive. Flowering crabapple and lilac used somewhat by hummers during spring migration. If you have trees that attract sapsuckers, hummers (and other birds) feed from the active sap wells.
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2 Responses to Recommended Hummingbird Plants for Upper Midwest

  1. grikdog says:

    Ive heard that coral berry and snow berry shrubs are attractive to hummingbirds.

    • Grikdog: Snowberry and coralberry are in the genus Symphoricarpos and are primarily insect-pollinated, but they do produce some nectar and hummers will visit them. They typically bloom early when not much else is blooming, so they may be a decent early-season blooming shrub to try. I’m experimenting this year with Symphoricarpos longiflorus–I’ll let you know how it works.

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