How Can I Lure Hummingbirds Every Day with Shade Loving Flowers?
Reader wants her husband to experience awe looking out his home office window.
Dear Avant Gardener, We are fortunate to have many hummingbirds on our property. As an avid bird lover, my husband would really like to watch them from the window while he works, but they seem to keep primarily to the sunnier areas and his office windows look out on a view shaded by madrone trees and mature oaks. As there is no real option to reduce the shade factor, what else might we do or plant to attract hummingbirds to this “tricky gray area?” We would like to avoid nectar feeders and have a strong preference for keeping flora native to the area. — Humming with Anticipation! Santa Cruz, CA
Aren’t hummingbirds literally awesome?! Their unique rotating wings allow them to fly up, down and sideways, as well as hover. Propelling these wings 70 times each second requires visiting as many as 2,000 flowers (!) each day for nectar. They are mesmerizing as they stop, start and whiz at up to 60 miles an hour in their constant search for food.
It’s likely you are seeing hummingbirds in sunny areas of your property simply because that’s where the flowers currently are. Hummingbirds use sight, rather than their poor sense of smell, to find nectar. They seek trumpet-shaped and tubular flowers in bright colors like red, purple, orange and yellow. They especially favor red flowers because insects — their competition for nectar — can’t see red well. Red cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), for example, acts as a hummingbird magnet. I planted only three of these stalk-like plants by our front steps this spring and now am delighted by the sight of ruby-throated hummingbirds when I enter and leave my house.
Hummingbirds also have exceptional hearing. Adding a trickling birdbath will increase the chances passing hummingbirds discover your shade garden, and it will add to the watching fun as they sip and splash around.
Designing a garden for the birds
Fortunately, several flowering species native to plant communities like yours — i.e., coastal California mountain forests with oak and madrone trees — thrive in full shade. Moreover, some even bloom in winter, allowing you and your husband to nurture (and watch) the Anna hummingbird year-round. (It is the only species that remains in California during winter; other hummingbirds migrate south, often thousands of miles, to Mexico and beyond.)
That said, only two of these shade-loving hummingbird plants are native to Santa Cruz proper. Both bloom in spring and summer, so without going further afield, you won’t attract hummingbirds to your shade garden in fall or winter. If you want to stick to plants strictly native to your area, you could create a hummingbird shade garden with crevice alumroot (Heuchera micrantha) and coast dudleya (Dudleya caespitosa) in a window box or in two containers with a trickling fountain in the middle. (Linked plant pages from California Native Plant Society’s Calscape include detailed information and range maps, plus links to nurseries that carry each plant.)
How strictly do you define “native”?
Even as a native plant nut, I have a few plants in my Rhode Island garden that are elsewhere on the East Coast. If you'd like hummingbirds in the fall and winter, I encourage you to also include the beautiful, eight-foot tall, winter-blooming fuchsiaflower gooseberry (Ribes speciosum), native within 20 miles of Santa Cruz, as well as western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) — native within less than 10 miles — and keckiella (Keckiella corymbosa). The simplified elevation below shows how all five plants plus a trickling birdbath might look from the office window. Together, they will substantially increase what the California Native Plant Society calls “the ‘carrying capacity’ of your garden — its ability to attract and support hummingbirds sustainably without additional human input.”
Then get planting! I experienced so much joy from my three cardinal flowers that I just planted 50 more, plus 150 spring-flowering red columbine. I’m humming with anticipation just like you.
— The Avant Gardener
Why, How, Wow!
Attracting hummingbirds to your yard creates opportunities to experience awe — childlike wonder with big benefits for adults.
Experiencing more awe is associated with living healthier and more meaningful lives. A 2021 study reported that feeling more awe is correlated with reporting feeling lowered levels of daily stress. Intriguingly, people who feel more awe also tend to have lower levels of inflammatory cytokines . . . Positive experiences of awe have also been found to increase feelings of well-being, life satisfaction and sense of meaning. — Richard Sima, The Washington Post
Let’s be honest, arranging plants is a crapshoot — especially pure-species natives. Compared to cloned cultivars, the size of individuals plants can vary widely. I use averages and space plants tightly based on their estimated full height and spread. Remember, all except very large plants can easily be moved or removed later.
By increasing the carrying capacity of their property, “Humming with Anticipation” will increase the likelihood that she and her husband will spot the smallest bird in the United States, the ping-pong ball-sized calliope hummingbird. The calliope flies more than 5,000 miles each year — all the way from Mexico to as far as Canada and back, passing through Santa Cruz on the way.
Want attract hummingbirds to your yard? Search for locally native red, purple, orange and yellow bloomers using the desktop advanced search function at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center and follow these steps from Audubon.