Read This: Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest

After screech owls, hummingbirds are my favorite garden visitors. Zipping around in jewel-toned splendor, these tiny birds with pugnacious personalities are a joy to watch. One of my favorite gardening moments occurred when I was watering some new salvias I’d planted, and suddenly heard a deep thrumming sound, almost a growl. With a jolt, I wondered if an unfriendly dog was coming toward me, and I looked up. A thrill of delight! A hummingbird was hovering just a couple of feet in front of me, face-to-face, its wings fluttering so fast they were only a blur. Apparently deciding I was safe, it darted to a flower and took a quick sip. The salvias were barely in the ground and already they’d attracted a beautiful hummer. It was a magical moment.

If you live in the southwestern U.S. and want to attract hummingbirds to your own yard — or amp up the number of visitors — you’ll be interested in a book I just read. Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest by Marcy Scott (Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2015) appealingly and practically explains how to entice these delightful birds with nectar-filled plants that thrive in the arid Southwest and with design tips for creating appropriate habitat.

Black-chinned hummingbird. Photograph by Dale and Marian Zimmerman.

Scott, a botanist, former wildlife rehabilitator, and garden consultant in Las Cruces, New Mexico, opens with profiles of nine hummingbird species that frequent the U.S. Southwest, an enormous region ranging from Southern California, through Arizona and New Mexico, to the Texas Hill Country and Austin (just barely). Northern Mexico and the southern edges of Utah and Colorado are included too. Beautiful photos of the birds at rest are accompanied by Scott’s engaging descriptions of each bird’s nectaring and nesting plant preferences, feeding and courtship behavior, and migratory range.

Thoughtfully, Scott also covers the dangers posed by proximity to humans, which we need to be cognizant of when we’re enticing them into our yards: domestic cats, windows, improperly maintained feeders, and insect sprays on our plants. I learned that some hummingbird species prefer to nectar on plants at ground level, making them more vulnerable to cat predation.

Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis). Photograph by Lisa Mandelkern.

The meat of the book, in Chapter 5, is a detailed plant guide for attracting hummingbirds to your garden. Scott descriptively profiles 120 plants, including each plant’s significance to hummingbirds; its native range, habitat, and appearance; and how to grow it. A full-page color photo (close-ups, for the most part) accompanies each plant profile.

Desert gardeners from West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona will, I think, find this book most useful. Those in Central Texas, like me, will learn that a number of the featured birds don’t typically travel this far east, and many of the recommended desert plant aren’t suitable for our steamy summer climate. That said, I counted at least 27 plants that work very well for us here and will certainly make your garden more appealing to hummingbirds.

Batface cuphea (Cuphea llavea). Photography by Wynn Anderson.

Whether you’re primarily a birder or a gardener, the book is guaranteed to make you more appreciative of hummingbirds and aware of how our gardening practices (or lack thereof) impact these vulnerable little travelers. As Scott eloquently reminds us:

“[E]ven a tiny oasis of habitat offering flowering plants that provide nectar can mean the difference between life and death to a migrating hummingbird — particularly when crossing broad expanses of mostly barren desert….To spiritual people through the ages, the hummingbird has signified joy, and indeed that is what they bring us. We can make an effort to encourage their favored plants in our gardens so that they might continue to grace us with their magic…”

Disclosure: Rio Nuevo Publishers sent me a copy of Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest for review. I reviewed it at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion.

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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

2/25/17: Come to my talk at the Wildflower Center. I’ll be speaking at the day-long Native Plant Society of Texas Spring Symposium at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. My talk is called “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” and it’s about creating water-wise home gardens that don’t sacrifice beauty. The symposium is open to the public. Click here for registration. I’ll be offering signed copies of my books, The Water-Saving Garden and Lawn Gone!, after my talk ($20 each; tax is included). I hope to see you there!

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts — performances in private homes, which support musicians and give a small audience an up-close and personal musical experience — I’m hosting a series of garden talks by design speakers out of my home. The upcoming talk with James deGrey David has sold out, but join the Garden Spark email list for speaker announcements delivered to your inbox; simply click this link and ask to be added. Subscribers get advance notification when tickets go on sale for these limited-attendance events.

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10 Responses

  1. hb says:

    Here we are lucky the hummers stay year round, and that the coyotes have eliminated the outdoor cat population. Besides southwest natives, South African and Australian plants are a big contributor to hummer happiness.

  2. I bet there are a lot of flowers in this that we grow as annuals. I often grow that bat face cuphea and true to for the hummers like it.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Good point, Lisa. Batface cuphea, despite being a perfect mascot plant for bat-crazy Austin, isn’t dependably hardy here either. I may have lost mine this winter, but if so I’ll replant this spring. —Pam

  3. Kris P says:

    I’ll have to check it out. Anything that helps to keep my resident hummers happy is a good thing.

  4. Laurin Swango says:

    Our hummers up here (Lewisville) like my batface cuphea (maybe dead, from what y’all are saying), salvias, turk’s cap, and (cue evil music) trumpet vine… But I’m finally having our inherited trumpet vines & the chain link fence they’re on all dug out with a backhoe next weekend! Don’t. Plant. Trumpet vine. Haha The hummers should still have plenty of other things to eat.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Wow, with a backhoe? That’s what I call getting serious. :) You’re absolutely right, of course. Trumpet vine, while pretty, is SO aggressive and will take over garden and house if allowed. I’m sure you know, but for readers wanting a garden-safe substitute try ‘Tangerine Beauty’ crossvine. It’s evergreen, blooms prolifically in spring (and a tiny bit in summer), and hummers love it. —Pam

  5. Diana Studer says:

    and our sunbirds enjoy your autumn sage.