Living in New York City, I rarely came across a hummingbird. I had never given them much thought, so when one showed up in my yard during my first North Carolina summer, for one horrifying moment I mistook it for an enormous flying insect. Once I realized it was a hummingbird, though, I was thrilled - this North Carolina thing might work out after all. My garden was non-existent back then, but I was already envisioning creating a haven for birds, bees, and butterflies. So I set about trying to create the perfect hummingbird habitat.
Only after I became an experienced gardener and a naturalized southerner did I realize that those ubiquitous "Plants that Attract Hummingbirds" lists should be heavily annotated. Take ajuga. I don't know about you, but I have never had a hummingbird in my Cary garden in March, when ajuga blooms. The earliest I have seen one is April, and then it was merely the briefest of sightings. On the other end of the seasonal spectrum, we have pineapple sage, which I put in pots on my deck to maximize my hummingbird viewing pleasure. Pineapple sage is sometimes billed as a September bloomer, but in my yard it starts blooming in mid-October. The bees are delighted, but the hummingbirds have already left town.
I loaded up my garden with plants that are reportedly hummingbird favorites: Louisiana Iris, bee balm, hibiscus, agastache, torch lilies, turtlehead, and tons of different kinds of sage. Nevertheless, the only months in which I regularly spot hummers are May, July, and August. In mid-May, when the Louisiana Iris blooms, I see primarily males (distinguishable by their red throat). However, in late May and June, I see nary a one, despite my ostentatiously blooming bee balm and Rose of Sharon. From mid-July through August, we're back in business, with regular sightings of the all-green female hummingbirds. Interestingly, the males now are nowhere to be found.
Finally it dawned on me that attracting hummingbirds is one thing; seeing them is another. I tend to have better luck in late afternoon and early evening (my understanding is that they like to load up on carbs before bedtime), but even then it is hit or miss. Well-placed feeders are a foolproof way to guarantee sightings, but since they attract ants and other undesirables, they are definitely out.
That brings me to Abutilon. I had been eyeing the Abutilon selection in the Plant Delights catalogue for years before I finally broke down and bought two Orange Hot Lavas this spring. Abutilon, aka Flowering Maple, is a house plant up north. But Plant Delights sells varieties that are supposed to be winter hardy to Zone 7b or 8a, so theoretically I could grow it in the ground. Still, I hesitated. I simply didn't have room in any of my various garden beds, nor was I interested in excavating a new one solely to make room for yet another alleged hummingbird plant of borderline hardiness. And really, what would Abutilon do for me that any of the trillions of other so-called hummingbird plants that I had invested in didn't do?
A lot, it turns out. In a stroke of genius born of laziness, I put both plants in pots on the deck, where they are easily seen from the kitchen and dining area. They started out as little nothings, but today, thanks to full sun and a regular dose of liquid fertilizer, they are little monsters. And now, for the very first time, I am not only feeding the hummingbirds, I am also seeing the hummingbirds - all day, every day, from mid-July until they fly south. I am not sure the plants will overwinter in the pots - time will tell. In the meantime, I have found the Holy Grail of hummingbird plants, and it is Abutilon.
The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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