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.
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.
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!
Ipomopsis rubra, Salvia penstemonoides, S. darcyi, S. guaranitica 'Black & Blue'
It just isn’t fair! Yesterday, a sweltering 91 degrees here in Red Wing. Yet a freeze warning has been issued for tomorrow night, with a predicted low of 29 degrees! The strong north winds tomorrow will probably carry with them many of the hummers hanging out in my yard lately, and the freeze predicted for tomorrow night may prematurely lay waste to the flowers in my garden.
Today, however, a one-day respite between the heat and the frost, I enjoyed a gorgeous 68 degree afternoon in the garden. Hummingbirds have carved up the garden into many small feeding territories, and there were numerous battles over the blooming salvias and cardinal climber. I made a conscious effort to enjoy the company of the hummers and the beauty of the flowers, because they may be mostly gone in a couple of days.
Update: Fortunately for me, although the official low in Red Wing was below freezing, my yard managed to escape a killing frost. A few of the most frost-tender plants got nipped a bit, but otherwise no damage–whew!
Salvia border with S. guaranitica, S. g. 'Black & Blue', Yvonne's Salvia splendens, S. 'Wendy's Wish', S. coccinea 'Coral Nymph'
It is that time of year in the garden that I envision for many months, beginning on frigid, dark winter evenings when I winter sow my first seeds of the year, when the garden outside is asleep under a blanket of snow. In the following months, seeds are sown, cuttings and seedlings are nursed along in the basement under lights, and all are eventually planted out in the garden over the course of a couple of weeks in May. When the plants I’ve raised are initially planted out in my garden beds, I always have a hard time imagining all that space between the tiny plants eventually filling in; my temptation is always to plant them a bit closer together than I know I should. After years of doing this, I’ve come to learn to trust that they always fill in, grow together into a tall hedge, and bloom.
Salvia border with Cardinal Climber (Ipomoea x multifida) behind
The peak of bloom of my large annual beds of Salvias coincides with the late summer hummingbird feeding frenzy. The young are out of the nest, the adults have turned their attention to migration, and all are feeding as much as possible to consume the energy they will need to make the journey back south to Mexico and Central America, where they will spend the winter. Use of my feeders peaks during the last half of August and first week of September, during which time I mix up about a gallon of nectar a day for the hungry hummers to consume. It is an absolute joy to be out in the garden at this time, hummers darting about among the masses of flowers, chasing others away from their nectar-filled flowers, born on the same plants I started from a tiny seed or cutting many months ago.
Another view of the Salvia border
This weekend (August 20-21) I’m banding hummingbirds at the 3rd annual Henderson Hummingbird Hurrah and also giving my hummingbird gardening presentation. There are more birds this year than either of the first two years–come on by to watch me band, tour the gardens, and listen to some great presentations!
An article about my hummingbird garden has been published in the latest issue (July/August 2011) of Northern Gardener magazine, the publication of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society. The article includes pictures of many of the plants in my garden. For those of you who without access to the issue who would like to view a low-resolution version of the article, here is a link.