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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Johnston

Attracting Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds with Native Plants: Your Comprehensive Garden Guide

Hummingbirds are one of the most beautiful species of birds in the world. In Eastern North America we are limited to 1 species of hummingbird, but it is a stunning one at that, the Ruby Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). Hummingbirds are a sign of a healthy ecosystem and are a key pollinator to many species of native plants.  This species spends summers from Texas up to Québec in the Eastern half of North America and winters in the southern tip of the US, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama. In this blog, I will give you some key principles you can use to attract and keep these beautiful birds in your yard all summer. I have split this into 3 key areas to focus on, Nesting Habitat, Spring Food, and Summer Food.


A ruby-throated hummingbird on a branch

 

Nesting Habitat

In early spring the male ruby-throated hummingbird starts its migration north a few weeks before the female to find the best habitat and start defending it from other males. Our goal is to design a garden space that has all the males fighting over space.


Female hummingbirds migrating north a few weeks later will look for where the males have already established themselves and will find the healthiest male to mate with for the season. Females build small nests made of thistle and dandelion down held together with pine resin and spider silk allowing the nest to expand as the chicks grow. They generally form these nests in large shrubs and small trees anywhere from 5’-50’ off the ground but are generally 10-20’ off the ground sheltered by leaves. There is a good chance that you already have a good nesting habitat nearby.


Food Sources

Ruby-throated hummingbirds primarily consume nectar and insects, so we want to ensure that they are available from the moment the males show up in spring until the juvenile species migrate south in September.

 

To ensure a steady source of insects the best thing you can do is grow keystone species, Species like Oaks, Sugar Maples, Birches, Native Cherries, Poplars, and Canada goldenrod are some of the best for Southern Ontario. Keystone species are some of the best food sources for insects, Oaks are the host for over 400 species of caterpillars which can be some of the most nutritious food for hummingbirds! Keystone species can be seen as ecosystem creators, they provide the most habitat, food, and shelter for a wide range of native species ranging from microbes to insects, to birds and more.


Spring Nectar Sources



A red columbine or aquilegia canadensis
Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Spring Nectar sources. Having the right plants located in your yard in early spring is the key to having male hummingbirds fight over territory, after making a long migration from as far south as Panama to Ottawa(where I’m located) they are going to be looking for lots of nectar to fill their appetite, some of my favourite spring flowering nectar sources for hummingbirds include Red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) a beautiful spring-early summer flower that grows up to 3’ tall and has nodding red and yellow blooms with 5 long nectar spurs. Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata) a short growing (1.5’) spring-blooming mat-forming plant that provides lots of nectar to hummingbirds, butterflies, and moths that emerge early in the spring. Both of those plants enjoy partial shade and organically rich, moist, well-draining soils. Another spring bloomer that has been known as hummingbird crack is the trumpet honeysuckle (lonicera sempervirens) this stunning deciduous twining vine that can grow up to 15’, loves full sun and provides tremendous amounts of nectar in Early Summer. Please be aware many honeysuckles are non-native and considered invasive, please only plant native honeysuckle species. It is important to plant multiple spiring blooming species since the blooming periods are generally shorter than what is needed to sustain ruby-throated hummingbirds.

 

Later Season Nectar Sources

a cardinal flower on a black background
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Once the Males and Females have found the best spring nectar and insect sources, they will generally build their nest close by. To keep them happy and coming back year after year you want to ensure there are lots of summer nectar sources, luckily for us there are many more plants that bloom summer into fall that are excellent nectar sources for ruby-throated hummingbirds. Some of my favourite genera are Liatris, Asclepias, Lobelia, and Monarda. Of those Monarda didyma and Lobelia cardinalis are 2 species that I find loaded with hummingbirds every summer. Scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma) is an upright, clump-forming perennial growing to 4’ loves full sun-partial shade and average- moist soils, blooming midsummer-early fall. Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinanlis) produces some of the most stunning blooms adored by hummingbirds summer-midfall, this perennial grows to 5’ tall and loves full sun-partial shade and organically rich moist soils, making it a great plant for rain gardens and soggy garden beds.

 



Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) in a field
Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)

With all this information you can now create some of the best habitats for ruby-throated hummingbirds in your community and have them all flock to your yard without the need for a sugar water hummingbird feeder that requires daily maintenance to not make the hummingbirds sick.

 

If you're interested in creating a hummingbird-focused garden in the Ottawa area and don’t want to get your hands dirty, we are very happy to design, install, and upkeep a relaxing and life-filled garden for you. Contact us here.

 

If you have any questions or would like to share your experience with these beautiful hummingbirds, please leave it in the comments below.

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