Weekly Express-News Article
By Calvin R. Finch, PhD, SAWS Water Resources Director, and Horticulturist
Saturday, July 21, 2007
“Formula for Attracting Hummingbirds
to your Patio”
One of the best things about late summer and autumn in San Antonio
is that hummingbirds lose some of their territoriality, and later
in the period, move in waves through our City.
The black chinned hummingbirds nest in San Antonio. The young
of the season are now on their own and the older birds are seeking
nectar sources to build up their bodies for their eventual migration
south. Ruby throated and rufous hummingbirds also move through.
The most effective way to attract a large number of these interesting
little birds to your patio is to add a few nectar producing plants
in containers and supplement them with one or more sugar water
Hummingbirds eat nectar from flowers to maintain their active
bodies. There are a number of flowers that provide nectar. Two
of their favorites are firebush (Hamelia patens) and pentas (Pentas
Firebush requires full sun to prosper. It will grow in our native
soils or in a container on the patio. In a three-five gallon container
the plant grows to a compact globe about two feet in diameter.
The foliage is a red green and the outer surface of the globe
is covered by tubular red flowers that are about an inch long.
Based on hummingbird attention on my patio, firebush is a favorite
source of nectar. The most dominant bird at any one time assumes
ownership of the firebush and defends it with aerial attacks on
any interloper that attempts to feed.
In the garden, firebush is very drought-tolerant, in the league
of esperanza and poinciana, but in a container it requires watering
every two days.
Firebush is root hardy in South Texas. With the first cold wave
the foliage turns purple red and when temperatures freeze the
top dies-back. Firebush is a heat lover, so do not expect it to
re-sprout in the spring until May. The difference in drought-tolerance
between a soil grown firebush and a container grown is probably
because the fibrous root system can spread widely and into every
nook and cranny in the soil, and is limited to a relatively small
reservoir in a container.
The nursery trade recognizes the popularity of firebush in a
container to attract summer and autumn hummingbirds so they are
readily available in decorative pots all over San Antonio. Obtain
one in full bloom for immediate hummingbird attracting power.
Pentas are nearly as attractive to hummingbirds as firebush.
Pentas also have shade tolerance so they can replace firebush
in shady situations. Pentas have small red, pink or lavender flowers
in clusters on a plant that is about the same size as firebush,
but less compact. It makes an attractive patio plant.
Penta is a tropical plant, so it does not survive the South
Texas winter most years unless protected in a greenhouse. Until
cold weather arrives it is in constant bloom. Firebush is pest
free, but pentas will sometimes be attacked by hornworms. They
can be picked off or sprayed with a Bt product such as Bio Worm
Killer, Thuricide or Dipel.
Other plants that do well in containers on the patio and attract
hummingbirds include zinnias (full sun), firespike (deep shade),
and shrimp plant (sun or shade).
To supplement the hummingbird plants on the patio, hang a sugar
water feeder from a screw-in hook under the eaves or from an arbor.
Place the feeder where you can see it from the kitchen table or
other comfortable air conditioned locations.
Hummingbird feeders are for sale everywhere, including your
favorite nursery, the supermarket and bird supply stores. They
include a plastic or glass reservoir and a plastic bottom where
the birds suck the sugar water. Select a feeder that comes apart
for easy filling and cleaning. The feeder will have to be rinsed
and refilled every week.
The sugar water solution should be four parts water and one
part sugar by volume. Mix it in a large bowl and then store extra
mixture in a one gallon plastic milk jug. A few drops of red food
coloring has traditionally been added, because red seems to be
attractive to hummingbirds. The coloring is probably not necessary,
but there is no research results that determine that it is detrimental
to the birds.
Most hummingbird feeders are engineered to discourage access
to the sugar water by bees and ants. If ants persist, you may
have to move the feeder between two or three locations every few
days. In addition to hummingbirds, house finches and golden fronted
woodpeckers will visit your feeder.