Thursday, September 20, 2012

louisiana hummer plants

eastern coralbean (aka "mamou plant") in bloom

As a follow-up to the previous post regarding the Louisiana hummingbird phenomenon, here's a little primer regarding best nectar plants for hummingbird garden use. Due to space limitations, I'm focusing on only the best/most essential hummer plants for our region. Here along the Gulf Rim, “our region” includes horticultural planting zones 8b-9 (google “U.S. horticultural zones, if you're not familiar).

The Major Players

First and foremost is Tropical Sage (Salvia coccinea), native to the immediate Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic Coast from Texas eastward through South Carolina, where it resides in coastal forests, often in association with coast live oaks (Quercus virginiana). In garden settings, tropical sage often verges on weediness; but that's precisely what hummingbird/butterfly gardeners need. And ultimately, it is so shallow-rooted that pulling it up is a snap.

this pink-flowered form of tropical sage popped up in our garden
from a nominate red-flowered plant that we obtained from
cheniere au tigre on the central louisiana coast...over the years
it has actually out-competed the nominate form in places........

This species grows 12-60” depending on sunlight exposure, soil type, soil moisture, genetic strain, etc. The cool thing about it is that you can maintain it at any height you want. I've seen it maintained as a ground cover beneath live oaks; kept at 4-6” via weedeater, and happily blooming away. As with most all New World salvias, the more you deadhead (prune off the spent bloom spikes) the more they bloom. Tropical sage is happy in just about any sunlight regime, from full sun to rather deep shade; and most any soil type except highly acidic (pH < 6) soils.

here's a mix of the nominate red-flowered tropical sage
(see why another common name for it is "blood sage"?)
and its pink-flowered progeny (which we dubbed, 'chevrette'....dat's "shrimp" in French, ya'll)

True native strains (from seeds or cuttings collected in the wild) of this species are prolific self-seeders; so this plant will travel about your garden. To control it, simply pull it up where you don't want it, and allow it where you do want it. Note that several cultivars (horticultural selections) of tropical sage are offered in the nursery trade. For the most part, these are various color forms of the species, are rather short-lived, and do not self-perpetuate in gardens via seeding.

Down at my latitude (cusp of zones 8b & 9), tropical sage blooms at least nine months per year – 12 months(!) in years with warmer winters. In this regard, it simply cannot be beat. Ask any hummer.

anise sage

Anise Sage (Salvia guaranitica) is a South American native which has proven itself to be a very long-lived perennial in Gulf Rim gardens, even though it does not self-seed. It is a clump-former, growing to heights of 30-50”. Like S. coccinea, you can maintain it at shorter heights by pruning. The nectar produced by this species possesses the highest sugar content (~ 30%) of all nectar plants, and is cherished by hummers. Bloom season: April-November. It is root-hardy to at least 20F. In our garden we have clumps that are at least 20 years old, which have survived many floods, dry spells, and sub-freezing nights.

turk's cap

Like tropical sage, Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) is native to the forests of the immediate Gulf and south Atlantic Coasts. It is a creeping, sprawling shrub, and is tough, adaptable, and long-lived. Grown under direct sunlight, it will run wild, covering large areas and growing to heights of 5-6'. Grown in shade, it behaves itself, averaging 20-30” and limiting its spread to 6-8' areas. I like to use it over the immediate root zones of shade trees, where most other plants would have a difficult time surviving. There, it definitely behaves itself, producing only ~25% of the blooms that a full-sun specimen would; but hey, that's still plenty enough flowers. Bloom season is about six months: April-September.

sultan's turban....note that blooms hang downward....
turk's cap blooms poke upward, and are much smaller

 For those living on the I-10 corridor and southward, also consider Sultan's Turban or “Giant Turk's Cap” (Malvaviscus penduliflorus), native in the U.S. to only the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and peninsular Florida (also, possibly native at Grand Isle, LA). It's a big 6' X 6' herbaceous shrub that blooms only fall into winter at this latitude. Down close to the coast, it blooms throughout the entire winter. Sun or light shade.

“Flowering Maple” (Abutilon pictum) is native to southeastern Asia. This is a large herbaceous shrub (15' X 7') from the Hibiscus family. When sited correctly – no more than 4-5 hours direct sun; eastern exposure; protection from winter winds – it will bloom continuously for at least nine months out of the year. Once it grows large, its stems do tend to flop; and in strong winds the whole plant can easily topple, so I reinforce the stems by loosely encircling all of them together with one wrap of green garden tape at a height of about 5'. It's also a good idea to tie the plant to a deck rail, porch post, or whatever in order to prevent wind-toppling. Courtyards are fantastic locales for this plant! It is “bloom hardy” to about 28F and root hardy to about 16F.

Cuphea 'David Verity'

Cigar Plants (Cuphea spp.) are native mostly to the New World tropics, and several species are commonly used in zones 8b-9 hummer/butterfly gardens here in the U.S. The best two performers for our region are Mexican cigar plant (C. micropetala), and C. ignea selection 'David Verity'. The former is mainly a fall-bloomer, whereas the latter is yet another nine-month bloomer for our region. Both make neat sun-loving shrubs that you only have to cut back once per year in order to maintain neat shape. C. micropetala grows to about 65” X 60” and is root-hardy down to the sub-20F range. C. 'David Verity' averages 36” X 30” and is root-hardy to about 24F.

trumpet honeysuckle

Native Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) offers excellent nectar in both spring and fall months, totaling at least 5-6 months per year. Give this well-behaved, 8' vine a half-day of sun and something to climb on. Grows in most soil types. Keep its roots well-mulched – moist and cool.

The Minor Players

These plants ended up in the “minor player” category because they're either less-used (comparatively speaking) by hummers or they possess notably short bloom seasons. Regardless, they're still valuable, beautiful, tough/adaptable, and very useful plants.

First is Lantana (Lantana spp.), native to the American tropics/sub-tropics, and certainly as decorative and long-blooming as tropical sage and flowering maple. Of course lantanas are known for their longevity of bloom, but hummers look upon them as second-rate nectar sources, going to them only when better options are not available. I'm not much of a fan of the hybrid and trailing lantanas, but the nominate shrub species “West Indian Lantana” (L. camara) and “Mexican Lantana” (L. horrida/urticoides) are both excellent performers around these parts. Once established, you couldn't kill either one if you tried. I consider both of these species native to Louisiana's coastal zone. Both are outstanding butterfly plants, and are visited with varying degrees of frequency by hummers.

Next comes a trio of native spring-blooming species, all of which doubtlessly evolved right alongside of the spring migration pattern of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in the eastern U.S. Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is a gorgeous shrub to small tree, grown best in shade, or in only a few hours of direct sunlight. Full-sun specimens get very large (25-30'). Because this deciduous species is on a rather whacky foliage schedule (leafing out by late January; defoliating by July), you'll want to keep it in unobtrusive locales/planting sites. Bloom season: March-May.

copper iris

Copper Iris (Iris fulva) is the earliest-blooming of our native iris species, and is the only species pollinated by Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (the other species are mostly bumble-bee pollinated). Bloom season: March-April.

Eastern Coralbean (Erythrina herbacea) is a perennial shrub from the bean family (Fabaceae). Bloom time: April-May.

The Cover Plants

With the winter hummingbird thing (see previous post) happening here along the Gulf Rim, it is essential that winter hummingbird gardeners provide these birds with some protection from cold winds and temperatures. This is where densely-foliaged evergreen plants come in. Oh....and here would also be a good place to reiterate that regardless of the lushness of your hummer garden, most all of us winter hummer gardeners pretty much have to commit to maintaining at least a couple of artificial nectar feeders throughout the winter season. Eventually, winter will take its toll on winter hummer gardens, with fewer and fewer blooms surviving after each successive blast of cold air. The last thing you want is to strand one or more winter hummers who've taken up residence in your yard once a freeze has occurred and suddenly there are few to no blooms available. Again, see the previous post for tips on how to maintain artificial nectar feeders.

Winter Honeysuckle or Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) ranks high as a winter shelter plant because not only is it a large evergreen shrub, but it also produces blooms – even down into sub-20F weather! This Oriental native grows up to 7' X 6' in loamier soils and under about a half-day of direct sun (it will put on acceptable growth/blooming in lightly-shaded spots as well). Blooms all winter into spring. Blooms smell exactly like fruit loops cereal. Joy!

Hollies (Ilex spp.), both native and Oriental species, are mostly evergreen, very adaptable, and thus provide good shelter for winter hummers and other birds, not to mention food for songbirds.

Last but by no means least are the Oriental evergreen Camellia species/cultivars. You absolutely cannot go wrong with these. Most important are the Camellia sasanqua cultivars, as they are the toughest, most adaptable, largest, and tightest-foliaged of them all. The C. japonica group is important as well. They prefer light shade (or no more than 4 hrs direct sun) in order to be happy. Oriental Camellias bloom in winter. Winter hummers routinely hunt around Camellia blooms of all types, but we're still not sure whether they are nectaring or bug-hunting. Regardless, Camellia flowers are definite bonuses for hummers. Note: Do not select dwarf Camellias as hummer cover plants. You want the old-timey, standard-sized stuff.

For more detailed information of Louisiana's hummingbirds and hummingbird gardening, I highly recommend Louisiana hummer expert Nancy Newfield's books: Hummingbird Gardens (1996) and Louisiana Hummingbirds (2011;

Sunday, September 9, 2012

the louisiana hummingbird phenomenon

young male Broad-tailed Hummingbird
(photo by Dave Patton)

I think most of us can agree that the descriptors “amazing” and “incredible” are among the most overused and misused words in our present-day pop-culture lexicon. I mean, if everything is as amazing and incredible as it's made out to be these days, then why are we in such trouble?

On the other hand, Real things – take Nature for example – are truly amazing and incredible; and one of the most amazing and incredible organisms in all of Nature is the hummingbird. The tiny size, the irridescent plumage, the ability to fly backwards and upside down with itty-bitty wings that beat 60 times a second . . . amazing . . . incredible.

Limited in distribution to the Americas, where over 330 species live, hummers reach their peak species diversity in northern South America, where 150 different species reside in Ecuador alone! As you go north or south from the tropics, hummer diversity drops accordingly. In the U.S., about 25 species have been recorded, 14 of which are regular breeders here, and the remaining 11 “strays” which have made brief appearances from points further south.

female Ruby-throated Hummingbird
(photo by Matt Conn)

Here in Louisiana, we host but one breeder, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird; but in an odd and recent turn of natural events, a dozen additional species have been recorded here to date – almost all of which show up in winter. Wow. Bear in mind that, as a rule, these additional species, as well as our own Ruby-throated, normally/traditionally overwinter down in the American tropics of Mexico, Central and South America.

Beginning back in the 1930s, “winter hummingbirds” began to be reported from the U.S. Gulf Coast, including here in south Louisiana. By the 1980s, the rate of winter hummingbird detections in Louisiana began to swell on an annual basis, with each successive winter bringing more and more birds and species. Pioneering banding efforts by Louisiana's Nancy Newfield and others have proven that many of our winter hummingbirds are actually “returnees,” birds which return here winter after winter, more often than not to the same yard where they were first captured and banded!

adult male Rufus Hummingbird
(photo by Dave Patton)

Today, at least three non-Ruby-throated Hummingbird species populate southern Louisiana in such numbers as to be considered common winter inhabitants: the Rufous Hummingbird from the northwestern coast of the U.S. and Canada, the Black-chinned Hummingbird from the western/southwestern U.S., and the Buff-bellied Hummingbird, a Mexican/south Texas breeder which regularly wanders northward to overwinter along the northern Gulf Coast of the U.S.

The Seasonal Hummingbird Set-up in Louisiana

Ruby-throats breed throughout the state, mostly in wet forests and preferably as near to water as possible. They love to build their marshmallow-shaped/sized nests on twigs which hang over water.

mama Ruby-throated Hummer on nest
(photo by Skip Miller)

Folks in urban areas and places well-away from water generally see Ruby-throated Hummingbirds only during their migration periods (March-May and August-October) into and through the state. Those of us who live in the woods near rivers, bayous, swamps, and lakes see them regularly throughout their May-August breeding season as well. Peak spring migration numbers occur in April; peak fall migration numbers in September. During those months, almost everyone who hangs a feeder or maintains a nectar plant garden will see large numbers of migrating Ruby-throateds.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird
(photo by Dave Patton)

If you see a hummingbird at any point between late October and early March in Louisiana, chances are it's not a Ruby-throated. Yes, a few Ruby-throateds do overwinter in southern Louisiana, but far fewer than do Rufous, Black-chinned, and Buff-bellied hummers. Additional wesstern U.S. species (listed in decreasing order of abundance) that you might also encounter include Broad-tailed, Calliope, Allen's, Anna's, and Broad-billed, all of which are reported from our state just about every winter. And then there are the super-rare species such as Blue-throated, Green-breasted Mango, Green Violetear, and Magnificent hummers to consider, though to date these have been recorded on only 1-2 occasions in Louisiana. Refer to your bird field guides and/or google to learn more about all these species.

Attracting and Hosting Hummingbirds

First and foremost, you'll need garden space in which to install nectar-producing plants and provide habitat for not only the hummers, but also the tiny insects/invertebrates which comprise up to 25% of their diets. Next blog post, I'll cover hummer plants, so stay tuned.

Equally important for those of us who host hummers for long periods of time (breeding/overwintering Ruby-throats and/or overwintering non-Ruby-throats) are artificial nectar feeders. If you maintain or desire to maintain artificial nectar feeders, understand that you are creating an artificial lifeline to the hummers that you'll host. Thus, you must commit to maintaining these feeders, ensuring that they are clean and contain fresh (changed out every week or so) sugar solution on a daily basis. Do not put red dye in the sugar solution. That ain't necessary and it's probably unhealthy. Do not use honey or any other sweetener besides ordinary table sugar. Acceptable sugar-to-water ratios are 1:4 in the summer months and 1:3 in colder weather (that's like l cup sugar to 3 or 4 cups water). If you're not hosting hordes of hummers, keep your feeders only partially full. It's no use filling them to the top only to have the unused nectar spoil after a week or so. Store unused sugar solution in the fridge.

adult male Black-chinned Hummingbird at da feeder
(photo by Dave Patton)

Maintain as many feeders as you dare, only make the committment to continuously maintain them for the sake of the birds that depend upon them. Once the big slug of migrating Ruby-throated hummers has passed, many of us will take down all but 1-3 feeders.

If you live within the Interstate-10 corridor and southward, DO NOT take your feeders down in attempts to induce Ruby-throated hummers to continue southbound migration during the fall. Ruby-throats must double their body weights in order to make the long trip to southern Mexico, so they need all the feeder help that they can get here in the north. If a Ruby-throated or two linger around your feeders into December, chances are they are too young, too old, or too sick to migrate any further south. Besides, non-Ruby-throated species are actively seeking overwintering sites here from October-February, and they'll definitely need your feeders, particularly when freezing weather has killed off many of the nectar-producing plants in our gardens.

immature male Black-chinned hummer
without lots of practice, most non-adult male hummers
encountered during the winter months will be difficult to identify...
(photo by Dave Patton)

Species identification of adult male hummingbirds is pretty straightforward. Females and immature males, on the other hand, are usually very difficult to identify to species. Only a handful of hummingbird experts are able to routinely identify females and immature males here in south Louisiana during the winter months. Nancy Newfield, a Metairie resident and longtime Louisiana birder, has been studying and banding Louisiana hummingbirds for nearly 35 years. She'll be glad to investigate any winter hummer that might show up in your yard, particularly if you live in southeastern Louisiana. Check out for info on Nancy (504.835.3882 h, 504.338.3882 c; and Louisiana hummers. Additionally, her new Louisiana Hummingbird publication is now available in both hard-copy and downloadable form at Much of the information that I've related in this post comes from Nancy. Her next speaking engagement will be November 29 at the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center in Baton Rouge.

If you live in southwestern Louisiana and find yourself hosting a winter hummer, contact longtime Lafayette birder and hummer bander Dave Patton (337.298.8447;; see also for a look at Dave's fab hummer pics, some of which appear on this post). This coming Saturday (September 15) Dave will be conducting a hummingbird banding demonstration in Lafayette. Contact him or Lafayette's WildBirds Unlimited store for more information.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

roadside diner

American Robin munching yaupon holly berries
(photo by Steve Pagans)

It really is a no-brainer. I love food. I love birds. I love wild plants. So why shouldn't I love birds who love food-producing wild plants? It's become a lifelong fascination. 

Back in the 1980s when I began working at the Acadiana Park Nature Station (Lafayette, LA), a book in the facility's library caught my attention: American Wildlife Plants – A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits (Martin, Zim, & Nelson, Dover Publications, 1951). A wonderful read, to be sure. But the thing was dated, man. Nineteen-fifty-one, you know? So I initiated a literature search for more recent stuff. The news wasn't good. Worldwide, I found no more than a handful of papers, only two of which dealt with birds and wild fruits in the southern U.S. In fact, the majority of those references dealt with bird gut sample results conducted back in the early 1900s by U.S. Department of Agriculture biologists – back when birds were viewed as either human food sources or noxious crop pests.

Yellow-breasted Chat on Service-berry Tree (Amelanchier arborea)
(photo by Beth Erwin...or maybe Rector Hobgood)

When I whined about this to LSU ornithologist Van Remsen, his reply was quick and to-the-point: “Why don't you conduct your own bird/wild fruit survey?” So that's what happened. Besides Remsen and myself, I managed to recruit a couple of dozen folks from around Louisiana who knew their birds and their wild fruits. For nearly five years (1994 through 1998), we recorded every instance of a bird eating a wild fruit that we observed, totaling 1,040 bird/fruit interactions in all, involving a total of 67 bird species and 50 plant species. I think we learned a lot about Louisiana birds and the wild berry species upon which they rely. I know I did.

during our survey, we observed 13 different bird species using
rough-leaf dogwood fruits, including several species of vireos & flycatchers...
since the survery, 3 additional observations involving Hermit Thrush,
Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Baltimore Oriole (above) have been reported.

Today, some observers still send me bird/fruit observations, the most recent of which came from Shreveport birder Terry Davis, who sent me this fine photo taken by Mark Priddy of a female Baltimore Oriole consuming rough-leaf dogwood (Cornus drummondii) berries.

Red-bellied Woodpecker lusting after black cherries
(photo by Russ Norwood

So what did we find out from our 1994-98 survey? Well one of the first things that struck me was the fact that all woodpeckers love fruit. All woodpecker species like all sorts of berries. One of my best memories from the survey involved a family of four Pileated Woodpeckers – mom, dad, and two youngsters. There was a nice black cherry tree right in the middle of the Acadiana Park Campground. The campground was empty, and the woodpecker parents had escorted their young to the cherry tree in order “show them what's good.” As the woodpeckers ate, the youngsters began to holler – with delight, I guess – which attracted a motely crew of American crows. The crows descended around the cherry tree, themselves hollering and side-swiping the woodpecker family. Expectedly, the youngsters were freaked, but the parents nonchalantly held their ground, completely ignoring the crows. The youngsters followed suit.

poison ivy....late at nite, when you sleepin'.....
note tiny berries top/center

We also found out what poison ivy's good for. In our survey, we tallied a total of 23 different bird species using poison ivy berries, including woodpeckers, thrushes, catbirds, thrashers, chickadees, and warblers. So now we don't have to hem and haw when kids ask us, "Why did God make poison ivy?"

Cedar Waxwing scarfing down evil Chinese privet berries
(photo by Matt Conn)

In a related side-story, we also noted that the very best wild fruit plants – those which routinely attracted the most birds and the highest diversity of different species – tended to be plants that humans consider to be trashy. At the very top of the list, for example, is hackberry, a tree whose presence few property-owners will tolerate. As mentioned, poison ivy ranked high, as well as other hated/disliked species such as Virginia creeper, red mulberry, elderberry, and Chinese privet. Don't even get me started on Chinese tallow fruits. That's a subject for another post....