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HUMMINGBIRD HEAVEN

In HUMMINGBIRD HEAVEN, our guest writer KIRK ANDERSON, from the LIVING DESERT AND ZOO, Palm Springs, California explains: Stepping out onto the deck during daylight hours in August would put you in the midst of such a barrage of aerial assaults and dogfights as to make the Red Baron proud. Audacious, iridescent pixies pulling up short and hovering inches from your face as if to say, "excuse me pal..."

Kirk Andersen, Living Desert and Zoo in Palm Springs, Ca. - Show 8/1108.

My wife, Susie, and I enjoyed nine years of living within the expansive yet intimate embrace of Shumway Ranch.  The Ranch, a part of The Living Desert's holdings, is 640 acres of bouldered elfin forest perched on a bench at 4,000 ft. elev. in the Santa Rosa Mountains.  The wraparound deck of the Caretaker's Cottage afforded views to the north down across rocky ramparts to the desert valley below while the south side nestled tight against the pinyon/juniper clad lower flanks of Asbestos Mountain. 

We reveled in the solitude that only two miles of narrow, rutted, dirt road and a locked gate can provide and for the most part enjoyed our relationships with the local inhabitants (pack rats taking up residence in engine compartments and skunks 'saying hello' outside the bedroom window would be notable exceptions).  One of our dogs, Jake, who rarely deemed anything worth speaking about, never failed to alert us to the presence of rattlesnakes with a distinctive voice reserved for just such occasions.  We spent many days on the deck and learned who hung around and who came and went with the seasons.  We looked forward with anticipation to the spring migration that would bring Lazuli buntings, green-tailed towhees, western tanagers and a wide assortment of warblers to our 'garden'. 

Most of all we looked forward to the seasonal buildup in the number of hummingbirds from the occasional whir of a lone winter holdout to the buzzing crescendo of hundreds of Anna's and Costa's hummingbirds that would peak in August.

Stepping out onto the deck during daylight hours in August would put you in the midst of such a barrage of aerial assaults and dogfights as to make the Red Baron proud.  Audacious, iridescent pixies pulling up short and hovering inches from your face as if to say, "excuse me pal, you're in my way".  This squadron of perpetual motion was fueled by a gallon of high-octane fuel (25% sugar water) placed in eight or more 16 oz. feeders each day.  The frenetic action continued unabated during the day as territories and/or feeders were either defended or relinquished.  Dusk and dawn each brought a brokered truce as these vital tank-up times were honored and all ports on all feeders would be occupied with additional birds perched to the side waiting their turn.

Playing host to hummingbirds by hanging feeders takes an unwavering commitment.  In the desert's summer heat Susie changed and cleaned feeders every day to prevent mold from developing.  Susie never wavered in her diligence.  She decided that Best-1 Hummingbird feeders were indeed the best simply because they were easiest to keep clean.  She also supplied balls of dryer lint and Jake's soft undercoat for nesting materials.  I saw her on several occasions counseling juvenile novice fliers who were having a tough time and had decided to take a break in the palm of her hand.

If cooking up batches of nectar and cleaning feeders daily seem daunting, you can still attract hummingbirds to your yard.  There are scores of plants available to provide sources of nectar year round in our low desert climate.

We think of Red tubular flowers as the traditional hummingbird flowers.  Indeed plants have evolved along with hummingbirds to take advantage of these industrious pollinators.  Their long bill and tongue can access the nectar at the base of the deep flowers and the red color puts them in the part of the spectrum that draws birds rather than insects.  The hummer's ability to hover also means that the flowers don't need to supply landing pads to facilitate pollination.  After watching hummingbirds for even a short while, though, you come to realize that the garden need not be restricted to red tubular blossoms, as the constantly feeding hummers with their insatiable appetites will visit flowers of many different shapes and colors.  Following are some worthy candidates for attracting hummers to your yard.  

One of the first plants that comes to mind when thinking about hummingbirds is a local native with a common name that is synonymous with hummingbird in Spanish, chuparosa (Justicia californica).  This 3 to 4 foot tall and wide shrub blooms anytime from the fall to the spring and when at peak bloom covers itself in a mass of red tubular flowers.  You can share in the bounty as well, as the flowers have a mild cucumber taste.

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) is a popular accent plant in southwest landscapes and provides a show of red tubular flowers at the tips of its long, spiny, whip-like stems.  The timing of the blossoms in spring takes advantage of the spring migration of hummingbirds.  These plants are most often sold bare root and can be tricky to get established in the garden.  Container grown plants are starting to become available or you can try one of the other species of ocotillo.  Mexican tree ocotillo (Fouquieria macdougalii) has a shrubbier growth habit, a faster growth rate, and a much longer bloom season than our local native.  You can see them in the Hummingbird Garden by the main tram stop, in the Ocotillo Garden or in the Foothills of Sonora Garden.

Scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea) is another hummingbird favorite that in addition to the red flower color can be found in pink, white, and purple forms.  The red and pink varieties will reseed readily in the garden for a fresh supply of plants and flowers.  You really can't go wrong in planting any of the many sages available.  Two of the more popular are autumn sage (Salvia greggii) and Mexican purple sage (Salvia leucantha).  Many different cultivars of autumn sage have been selected and range in color from the traditional red to varying shades of red, pink, yellow, and white.  Heaviest bloom is in the fall with a lighter repeat performance in the spring.  Mexican purple sage blooms year round on the coast but performs best during fall and winter in the low desert. 

Also, providing color and nectar through the low desert's brief winter lull are three plants not commonly available but worth tracking down, red justicia (Justicia candicans) and Anderson's honeysuckle (Anisacanthus andersonii) with red flowers and desert honeysuckle (Anisacanthus thurberi) with orange blossoms.  Many species of aloes are winter bloomers and a succession of bloom can be achieved by planting several different types.  Medicinal aloe (Aloe vera) and soap aloe (Aloe saponaria) are two reliable and widely available performers.  Bitter aloe (Aloe ferox) and mountain aloe (Aloe marlothii) are tree aloes that are spectacular in bloom with inflorescences of scarlet/orange/yellow flowers.  Additional succulent accents that attract hummingbirds are red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) with its 3 to 5 foot arching sprays of pink flowers in the spring and candelilla (Pedilanthus macrocarpus).  Candelilla or slipper plant is a unique and not widely available plant comprised of vertical and/or trailing pale green leafless stems that bear orange/red flowers that resemble slippers on their tips.

Many avid gardeners find that they quickly run out of room for new plants but most can probably find a spot for a penstemon or two or thirty.  These western natives add a brilliant splash of color to the landscape in the spring.  For the most part they prefer full sun, well-drained soil and not to be overwatered.  Parry's penstemon (Penstemon parryi) is my #1 choice for the low desert with its multiple spikes of pink flowers and penchant for reseeding itself, which offsets its tendency to be short-lived.  Penstemon superbus with coral blossoms, P. eatoni with orange/red flowers and an extended bloom cycle and the spectacular blue/violet show of P. spectabilis are all deserving of a niche in the garden.

Desert willows (Chilopsis linearis) are good choices for gardens in need of some height and canopy cover.  The orchid-like flowers range in color from almost white through all shades of pink to burgundy and have an extended bloom season in the low desert, from six to eight months.  Yellow bells (Tecoma stans) and Orange Jubilee (Tecoma X ‘Orange Jubilee') are both taller growing shrubs, 6-10 feet +, that can offer screening and hummer appeal.

Mexican lobelia (Lobelia laxiflora), cardinal monkeyflower (Mimulus cardinalis), and golden columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) will brighten shady areas that tend to stay wetter, while California fuchsia (Epilobium californica) prefers dry shade.  Blooming in the sun or shade over long periods are Mexican honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera) and Baja ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis).  Scarlet bush (Hamelia patens) is another plant that performs in either shade or sun, though probably not a hot western exposure, and is available with red or orange tubular flowers.  

Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica), pink fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla), and red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) are very popular plants with both people and hummingbirds.  This is surprising to most as there is nothing tubular about the flowers yet they supply a source of the highly sought after nectar.

This is just a small sampling of the possibilities you can try for enticing these Lilliputian avian acrobats to your yard.  You'll be surprised at how fast they will appear in response to a new nectar source.  For a more complete listing of hummingbird plants, check our website at www.livingdesert.org.  Many of these plants will attract butterflies and other pollinators as well.  You can see all of these plants in the gardens at The Living Desert and most are routinely available in The Palo Verde Garden Center.  Now's the time to go out and find a patch of red, tubular flowers, pull up a seat, and let the entertainment begin.


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