There is something magical about a garden full of hummingbirds. As they move at impossible speeds between flowers and zips, they’re letting you know you’ve done something right. The Southwest, and southern Arizona in particular, is fortunate to have about 14 different species of hummingbirds, but it only takes one to bring the magic to gardeners.
During most warm seasons, hummingbirds have an abundant supply of flower nectar and small insect food in most gardens, and allowing hummingbirds to fend for themselves is not a problem. They are experts at finding and defending their favorite food sources. But even in the warmer parts of the Southwest where hummingbirds are year-round residents, winter cold can significantly reduce nectar sources. The season is thankfully short — by March, well-planned desert gardens are bursting with flowers and lean days are over.
Adding sugar water to hummingbirds’ winter resources at the feeder reduces their stress and provides hours of entertainment. Just make sure to do it correctly. Provide only pure sugar water—no red dye—and change the water frequently. Even with the feeder, I still want to make sure the hummingbirds have as many natural resources as possible. These are a handful of flowers that bloom frequently in my Tucson garden between November and March. Keep in mind that not every location or every winter is the same. Some years will have abundant blooms and others may have more sporadic blooms. This is key to making sure hummingbirds have something available at all times.
Calandra spp and cvs., zones 7b-11
Baja Fairy Garden (Calandra californicazones 9–11) is the bright red cousin of our southwestern native fairy dust, Calandra eriophylla. (Zones 7b–11). The Baja Pre-duster is bigger and more powerful in most situations. Although winter slows it down, mine never flower, especially when grown in a warm microclimate. It can sometimes freeze back in colder zones of zone 9, but it is hardy and quick to recover. Pink flowers on the other hand C. eriophylla There is usually a short dormant season and flowers from late winter to spring. Apply them both!
Eucalyptus spp and cvs., zones 8-11
Lemon Blossom Gum (Eucalyptus woodwardiizones 8b–11) and coral gum (Eucalyptus tarcota, zones 8b–11) may not be on most people’s wish-plant list, but these two beautiful species are excellent nectar sources for hummingbirds and bees. They are not scary, giant eucalyptus trees. Rather, they are just the right size for most gardens. Lemon-flowering gum is slender and grows up to 20 feet tall with powdery gray leaves and lemon-yellow flowers on weeping branches. Coral gum is upright and rounded, 15 to 20 feet tall and wide with flowers ranging from soft pink to dark rose to coral. A hybrid between these two species, called ‘Torwood’ gum or ‘Torwood’ eucalyptus (Eucalyptus ‘Torwood’, Zone 8b–11) has flowers that are soft pinkish-orange. Flowers can appear at any time of the year. With many trees, I have abundant flowers for a long season from winter to spring. These plants are very heat and drought tolerant in zones 8b and above.
Justice spp and cvs., zones 8-11
There are three judges who make my list, and although winter is not their season of flowers, mine is never without flowers. Beloperone (Justice California, zones 8–10) is a spindly native shrub that blooms on its leafless (and brittle) stems in mid-winter, and hummers are quick to flock to it. red justice (Justice Candicans, zones 9–10) bears bright red, three-lobed flowers atop its upright stems, forming a compact shrub. This plant always seems to be in some stage of bloom in my garden, even thriving in non-irrigated partial shade. Mexican honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera, zones 8–11) is native to Mexico, with bright green leaves and flame orange blooms. With a little water and shelter, this plant will almost always bloom.
Gladiolus splendensZones 9-11
This species of gladiolus is quiet and refined, unlike those that scream for attention with over-stage funeral arrangements. Small bulbs of this species return to my garden each winter, their leafy spears growing steadily from the bare soil through November. The red flowers of this plant begin to bloom in mid-winter and continue until spring. They never escape the attention of hummingbirds!
A firecracker plant
Russelia equisetiformisZones 9-11
The firecracker plant is a flower powerhouse. Its sharp arching sprays of green foliage drip with bright red flowers for most of the year. Best planted in full sun but fairly adaptable, the firecracker plant appreciates a regular watering schedule. There are many color forms and cultivars, but I always return to this original species for its full habit and abundant flowers.
Try one of these bright, colorful flowers to attract hummingbirds to your garden this winter. For more information on attracting pollinators in the Southwest, check out:
And click here for Southwest Regional Reports.
—Dan Johnson lives and gardens in Denver and Tucson, Arizona. He is the associate director of horticulture at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Photo: Dan Johnson