Planting for Hummingbirds

A hummingbird visits a patch of sunset hyssop (Agastache rupestris) in my courtyard garden.

One of the big perks of moving to the west has been an increase in opportunities to create habitat for hummingbirds. I planted many of my new garden plants with an eye toward ensuring nectar sources through the seasons for these fascinating creatures, and I’ve been rewarded by seeing up to four at a time in the garden this year, after only seeing one or two last year.

In order to keep adding and improving hummingbird habitat in my garden, I’m paying attention to the plants they visit, where they spend the most time, their habitual flight paths, and anything else that will give me ideas about what to add more of as I make new planting beds.

I knew that in general, hummingbirds prefer tubular flowers that fit their mouth parts and the way they drink nectar, so I have not been surprised by most of the flowers that they like in my garden. However, I was kind of surprised to see them visiting catnip, which is tiny compared to the other flowers they frequent, and also by their fondness for a mature double-flowered rose of Sharon shrub in my backyard.

Hummingbird favorites currently blooming in my Boise garden — top: double-flowered rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), 2nd row L to R: appleblossom grass (Gaura lindheimerii ‘Rosy Jane’), prince’s plume (Stanleya pinnata), Texas sage (Salvia greggii ‘Salmon Dance’), 3rd row L to R: sunset hyssop (Agastache rupestris), scarlet bugler (Penstemon barbatus var. coccineus), honeysuckle vine (probably either Lonicera periclymenum or L. caprifolium), penstemon-leaved salvia (S. penstemonoides), bottom left: Arizona columbine (Aquilegia desertorum), bottom right: Transylvanian sage (Salvia transylvanica ‘Blue Cloud’) above a tiny flower of catnip (Nepeta cataria).

The plants I have seen them visit most often and spend the most time drinking at are pineleaf penstemon (P. pinifolius), Arizona columbine (Aquilegia desertorum), meadow sage (Salvia sylvestris ‘Caradonna’), and Transylvanian sage (Salvia transylvanica ‘Blue Cloud’). The penstemon and columbine have both been blooming continuously in my garden since mid-May when the hummers arrived, and the two sages tag-teamed starting in late May and are both currently reblooming.

I plan to spread these staples around because of their obvious usefulness to the birds as a preferred and — in combination — steady and abundant nectar supply. Of course, I will also continue to add different hummingbird plants as well, to boost the garden’s diversity. Planting more nectar sources for them (spreading them out too, to increase the size of their territory) and keeping my garden free of pesticides should increase my chances of seeing more hummingbirds in the garden, in addition to supplying me with plenty of visual interest and fragrance from the blooms.

Behind the prominent red-brown blooms of a Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera), purple-blue Transylvanian sage reblooms on flowerstalks held above its delightfully rough-textured, large leaves. You can see from the photo that I don’t deadhead; I am hoping this hummingbird favorite will self-sow in my garden.

Having heard they must keep flying nearly continuously to eat enough to survive, I’ve been surprised to observe that my hummingbirds perch frequently and for several minutes at a time. They perch on bare twigs and branches, on the tops of tomato cages, and higher on electrical wires. They do a lot of grooming while perched, and they also scan for interlopers — other hummingbirds against which they vigorously defend their favorite plants.

When I set up the sprinkler under a tree, they enjoy darting in and out of it to bathe. I have also been lucky enough to witness their mating dance, in which one bird does a flying pattern in front of another perched one. All in all, they have been a highlight in the garden so far, and I expect hours of entertainment in years to come.

View of my front garden along a stepping stone path (at right).



  1. So glad to see you growing Salvia transylvanica as it is one of the best for observing the amazing lever action pollinating mechanism that Salvias employ. Next time you are out in the garden bring a pencil or snap off a small twig and insert it into a Salvia floret, pressing down on the lower tongue in there. This will cause two fang-like stamens to emerge from above and dot your pencil with pollen. Here’s the amazing part – if you were a bee it would hit you exactly in that spot on your back that you can’t reach. You know, that place between your shoulder blades that someone else has to scratch for you. The place your “friend” might stick a “kick me” note? Then wait around for it to happen to a real bee. Who needs TV?

  2. I adore hummingbirds and am always trying to encourage them to visit my garden. I’m definitely hanging on to this post for the next time I’m at the nursery. I see a new plant or two in my near future 😉

    • Susan, I have been thrilled at how well salvias grow here. In my MN garden, only two types of salvia survived (S. nemorosa and S. officinalis), and they weren’t really happy about it. But YOU could grow the lovely native Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica), which I hear is very attractive to hummingbirds.

  3. Great post! We have some hummers again this year and they are so fun to watch. They like the salvias I have too, as well as others (including my rose of Sharon) Last night one flew right up next to the screen of the gazebo and hovered there peering at us. I think he was saying, “Thanks for all the great plants!”

  4. Fascinating and educational post. I particularly like the photo of the different flowers and their IDs. Observations of this sort are invaluable to gardeners and birders alike, along with those whose lives are steeped in Nature. Thank you.

  5. This is the best reason to plant a garden and shows why more flowers are more fun!

    I love all the birds and squirrels that visit a beautiful garden like this.

  6. Great list. I’d like to also suggest Chilean Glory Vine – Eccremocarpis saber – It’s very easy to grow, hardy in zone 7, covered with orange or red trumpet flowers and blooms from spring to fall. Of all my hummingbird plants, this is a favorite.

  7. Hummingbirds also like those nectar producing flowers because they attract tiny insects.

    But, they’re also good at snatching insects out of the air and that’s another reason they hover:

    I have a fruit table near my hummingbird plants. Many insects, including fruit flies love it. And, thus, the hummingbirds like to hang out there, too. (Sorry, fruit flies.) Cantaloupe, watermelon, oranges and apples are insect favorites.

    If interested, in my opinion, I have finally found the BEST hummingbird feeder I have ever used. I’ve used many.

    But, this one is special. For years, I have lost many bees in the feeders. Sure, I’ve tried bee guards, but they make feeding by the birds more difficult and they drip attracting bees.

    Notice the slot openings. The birds easily slurp.
    I have never had one insect of any size in the feeder nectar.

    Not shown, they also have one for a few dollars more that has a small ant moat on top, though you can add your own with the cheaper model. It’s super easy to clean ( I do three daily), and pipe cleaners can be used. They seem to always be available in the store.

    • Wow, Marcia, cleaning 3 feeders daily, setting out a fruit buffet, … you are really pampering those hummingbirds! Thanks for that great link to the excerpt from the PBS special. I appreciate the extra info and the chance to see them up close. The more I learn about them, the more amazing I think they are.

      • Evelyn,

        Actually, cleaning 3 feeders daily is pretty easy as it only takes some hot soapy water and a little sponging. Mold will not accumulate in 24 hours. I will use pipe cleaners weekly.

        The fruit buffet is not only for nourishing the insects the hummingbirds enjoy, it’s good for bringing the rotted fruit loving butterflies to the yard.

        Here’s a short video from my yard showing some fruit table visitors:

        I enjoyed your post and photos and, for sure, all varieties of agastache are the true winners in my yard, too, including tutti frutti, a hummer fave.

  8. I quit removing the flowers on my coleus after I observed the hummers sipping methodically from each tiny flower. I allow the Texas sage (Salvia coccinea, the red one) to volunteer itself freely.
    I also love my First Nature hummer feeders, although I have the “stackable” 16 oz ones. No bees crawling in, although the itty bitty ants get in if you don’t keep water in the top moat. Larger than average opening makes it easier to clean too.

  9. The plant most beloved by hummers in my garden is Jacob Cline monarda. Its the one they fight over. Also phygelius and fuschias.

  10. Those are many great plants for hummingbirds. Of course they like the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) that is in bloom now at my house. I find they also like the Nicotiana and are quite busy with it into the evening hours.

    But hands down, the best plant I have ever seen for them is Pink Porterweed (Stachytarpheta mutabilis). It is a tropical but can be treated as an annual in a temperate garden. When I worked at Norfolk Botanical Garden, the hummingbird garden was outside my office window and the birds would spend more time at this plant than any other. I had enough influence with the gardener responsible for area that she made sure several Stachytarpheta were planted just outside my office window every season. I always had hummingbirds to distract me from my work.

  11. Another plant with tiny flowers that both bees and hummingbirds love is the ordinary lamb’s ear. Its bloom stalks are covered with tiny little purple flowers that are bee and hummingbird magnets.

  12. In Zone 9b, Southern California, I have discovered the favorite plant of the hummers among all my salvias, trumpet vines, etc. It is the cigar plant – specifically Cuphea Ignea (David Verity). Easy and fast grower, cuttings root in water, but more importantly the hummers bypass every plant (and even the feeder) to get to this one. I have them scattered around and they love them.

  13. Hi Evelyn, thanks for this post. I too watch the hummingbirds as they buzz me in the garden. I must say I still jump every time they get close. They sound like huge bumblebees. They are such a delight in the early evening, and I don’t feed ours anything except the flowers they seem to enjoy. Aren’t all the pollinators the best part of gardening?~~Dee

  14. If you are looking for super hummingbird plants, nicotiana is spectacular. All of the Burley varieties and Jasmine. My decade of experience with the plants is summed up in my book, Flowering Tobacco for Gardens which is available at Amazon in print or Kindle.

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