Dear Miss Floribunda,
I recently moved from a cul-de-sac near Driskell Park to Madison Street and like my larger garden. However, there are no hummingbirds. My kids in particular miss them. Our old home didn’t have anything designed to attract them, though the birds visited the azalea bushes that came with the house even after the fragrant pink flowers had dropped off. They also visited a volunteer vine with orange flowers that ran up our redbud tree. Whenever we turned on our sprinkler’s mister in the summer, we could look out the window and watch the hummingbirds flying back and forth through it. In our new home, the kids have planted scarlet runner beans, which our old neighbors told us were magnets for hummingbirds, but without success. In the meantime, we have put up hummingbird feeders and colored the syrup red. So far, all we’ve been getting are ants and some wasps. Please advise.
Humdrum without Hummingbirds on Madison Street
You may have not known it, but you did have hummingbird attractors in your garden: Your azalea was probably the native Rhododendron arborescens, commonly known as smooth or sweet azalea. Not only do hummingbirds like its nectar, they also like azaleas and other fairly low, dense shrubs as places to nest in. Our native redbud trees are another hummingbird favorite.
You had either a native coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) growing up into your redbud tree, or a trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), known as hummingbird vine in some areas. Both vines have tubular flowers that are loved by the long-beaked hummingbirds not only for the nectar but because the long shape discourages such rivals as bees and wasps from competing with them. Hummingbirds can see flowers of all colors, but bees cannot see red and are drawn to yellow. Some plants have actually evolved to have red flowers because of a preference for hummingbirds over bees as pollinators. This kind of “choice” among plants is worth exploring in an entire column.
You haven’t mentioned what plants are in your new garden. You also haven’t mentioned, and perhaps don’t know, if your new neighbors keep their gardens free of pesticides. If they don’t, there is no way in the world that hummingbirds will visit anything you plant.
My Aunt Snapdragon gets indignant with people who hire companies to spray their lawns each year with pesticides and then complain about the gnats in summer. She grumbles that gnats are precisely the one insect that the pesticides don’t kill, and, as a consequence, they proliferate. Ironically, birds such as hummingbirds would quickly decimate the gnat population, as well as those of fruit flies, mosquitoes and other annoying small insects — if they could survive such chemicals. So, when someone once dared protest to her that the company hired only used chemicals designed to kill insects and not birds, Snapdragon burst out, “What in the name of J.I. Rodale do you think birds eat!? How would you like it if some know-it-all came along and poisoned your food?”
Even worse, she says, are the companies that spray for mosquitoes. Even cats and dogs and small mammals suffer from these chemicals, not to mention the birds, bats and toads that so much more efficiently and safely control even the elusive tiger mosquitoes that are resistant to chemicals. Montgomery County now has an ordinance limiting “cosmetic” lawn chemicals, and I hope Prince George’s County and Maryland as a whole will adopt similar legislation.
Because hummingbirds love eating fruit flies in addition to nectar, you might get one of the hummingbird feeders that allows you to add sliced bananas as well as nectar. These feeders usually have ant guards, too.
I’m sorry to have to tell you that it is a very bad idea to add red dye to any syrup you put in a bird feeder, as the dye is toxic to them. They like clear syrup just fine, in the proportion of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. It’s a good idea to boil the solution first. Please remember to frequently wash the feeder and replenish the syrup.
The Audubon Society has a website, audubon.org/native-plants, listing native plants and the birds they attract. The International Hummingbird Society has a wider list at hummingbirdsociety.org/hummingbird-flowers.
Some tropical plants, such as hibiscus and canna, are also favored by hummingbirds because so many come from South America. They love the misting feature on your hose because it mimics rainforest conditions. Be sure to provide water for them, preferably a fountain or something that moves the water.
Please check the website of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society, hyattsvillehorticulture.org, for the date of our next meeting.