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..."
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
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.